Feb. 11, 2005 | 6:35 p.m. ET
Your messages for E.T.: Should we tell the aliens anything, or should we keep our existence in this little corner of the universe a secret? Most of the readers who responded to Wednesday's item about interstellar communication say broadcasting the whole Internet to the stars, as SETI astronomer Seth Shostak suggested, would tell E.T. and his pals way too much.

But have we already been blabbing to the aliens? You might think that E.T. could just pick up on our decades-old broadcasts of "I Love Lucy" and other shows from the Golden Age of Television, but Shostak says those signals might be too faint to be detected, say, 100 light-years away.

"The best SETI experiments today are seven orders of magnitude too poor to be able to detect a comparable signal," Shostak writes in his research paper on the subject. Military radar signals are a different story: They're more detectable, but they cover only a fraction of the sky at a time. So it could be that our secret is still safe.

Here's a selection of your e-mails on the subject:

Pete Howell, Reno, Nev.: "If we make contact with extraterrestrials, I expect we'll learn more about ourselves, in how we react, than we will will about them, physics, philosophy or anything else. On the other hand, the nutcases standing on top of the building in L.A., in the movie 'Independence Day,' may be right."

Craig Rothstein: "Why should we assume that an alien race is more 'technologically advanced' than we are?  What is 'advanced,' for that matter?  Does it mean they are civilized, or have flat-screen televisions? Does it mean they know binary programming language or javascript? Does it mean they've constructed eco-friendly dwellings, or learned to live with the trees in solace and friendship? ...

"We gloss all things with our veneer of technology and plasma and microchips, thinking there is only one way: our way. But in a universe of infinite possibility, must the red cloud around the Crab Nebula equal deuterium? Must light always travel at 186,000 mph? Must 3 minus 2 always equal 1? Logic, like all other things, is a relative notion. Before we so haughtily send our grand message to the stars, perhaps we ought to consider that our very notions of logic, distance, speed, physics, math and language itself are only as influential as the human eye can see. Maybe then we will be able to understand why, when they do come, the 'aliens' will be far different from anything we've ever imagined."

Ting Liang: "Even an advanced civilization will still need an interstellar equivalent of GPS system to navigate accurately. Instead of sending them information about us, how about duplicating some signals they might use as a beacon for interstellar travel to confuse them, and let them send their technicians over here to investigate. A little cosmic mischief will definitely get their attention."

Mark: "Since our part of the galaxy is relatively young, compared to the rest of the neighborhood, there is a good chance intelligent life is all around us. Then why no contact? Heck, would you want to contact a species that lies, cheats, kills and murders each other on a daily basis! Fore...gedda about it. Let's slap a quarantine sticker on the planet and wait to see if they will finally grow up and act like intelligent beings worthy of contact."

Katrina Erickson, Villa Park, Ill.: "My first question would be asking what they know about us. I believe we could probably have had contact long ago, if our world was not so worried about who was in control all the time. With years of studies and sightings that people have said they've done or seen I would assume we have had contact, we just have not opened the doors of communication. Plus if they are beyond our intelligence, why would they want to talk to such undisciplined, selfish and controlling people as we have here on earth. Do not get me wrong — not all of us are like this, but majority rules. And I would ask them why they have waited so long to communicate with us."

Patrick Bishop: "The first thing we should do is ask (not tell). A good place to start might be, 'Would you like to communicate with us, and if so, what would you like to know?' Next, wait for a reply before doing anything fresh or pushy like uploading an encyclopedia, or God help us, the Internet. How interested would I be, were a caveman to stand outside my door screaming his lifetime's accumulated wisdom at me? If I'm a decent sort of fellow, I'll just wait it out until he runs out of gas ... wondering why I'm not congratulating him on being so smart. If I'm not a decent fellow, I may tell him to bug off.

"Our entire experience dealing with civilized species is limited to dealing with our own. From a sample size of one, it is unwise to make extrapolations to civilizations which have developed in other places under circumstances which are very likely much removed from our own. The psychology of E.T.s, if they exist, could differ from our own as much as ours differs from the humpback whale. With a sample of one, there is no reason to think otherwise, though admittedly, no reason not to.

"As for the best way to get E.T.'s attention, it is unlikely that any civilization sufficiently sophisticated that it can transmit and receive signals across interstellar space would fail to miss Earth. A random radio survey of its (E.T.'s) night sky would reveal our solar system as an anomalously bright object (in the radio frequency range of the spectrum). It would not take them long to learn why. They may have made this same assumption, and rather than attempting to 'ping' civilizations directly, are waiting to be noticed just doing their normal thing, assuming they care whether civilizations other than their own exist.

"Perhaps all we need do is wait and watch our instruments for that suspiciously bright radio source in a suspiciously small patch of sky."

Barbara Bowen: "I think that scientists considering how to communicate with aliens should talk to the scientists who are working on communicating with apes and dolphins. They're the only ones who have any experience talking to alien intelligences. (Other than anyone who has tried to reason with a toddler.)"

James Host: "I recently read Charles Pellegrino's 'The Killing Star' and Greg Bear's 'The Forge of God.' In these two science-fiction novels, the Fermi Paradox is explained by postulating that a planet that sends radio messages out to the stars is apt to get unwanted attention from a paranoid culture which would send bombs to sterilize the noisy planet. The Pellegrino book was especially compelling, and details the reasoning behind such unfriendly neighbors (on the order of 'I thought he might hit me, so I hit him back first.') Read these two books. Then you'll understand why I'd suggest not sending any messages to the stars at all — and why we should look into reducing the amount of information-bearing traffic that we're already broadcasting."

Based on Host's recommendation, I'll list those two books as this month's dual selection for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club, which highlights books with cosmic themes that can be found at your local library or used-book shop. As a reward, Host will receive a proof copy of Stephen Baxter's evolution sci-fi novel "Exultant."

Feb. 11, 2005 | 6:35 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
'Nova' on PBS: 'Saving the National Treasures'
The Economist: Love me, love my dog
Discovery.com: Do valentines hinder love?
Celestial valentines from NASA

Feb. 10, 2005 | 9:35 p.m. ET
Space safety first: Now that space entrepreneurs are getting down to the nitty-gritty of building a suborbital tourist industry, everyone agrees that passenger safety is the No. 1 concern. But how should those safety concerns be addressed in an inherently risky, experimental business?

The space-tourism law that took effect late last year provided an extra opening for spacecraft operators to push the envelope: The Federal Aviation Administration would safeguard national security and the uninvolved public, but its role in regulating crew and passenger safety would be limited. Tighter regulations would kick in only if someone got killed or injured, or was involved in a close call. Then, in 2012, the FAA could start regulating the industry as it saw fit.

The idea was to give spacecraft operators an experimental period, analogous to the barnstorming era in early aviation. But for some lawmakers, particularly on the Democratic side of the aisle, that plan sounded too risky. Why wait to enforce crew and passenger safety until someone dies?

The main spokesman for that point of view is Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., the ranking Democrat on the House Transportation Committee. "The current statutory language amounts to, in essence, the codification of what has come to be known in aviation safety parlance as the 'tombstone mentality,'" he said in extended remarks to his colleagues. "For years, both I and many of my colleagues on the Aviation Subcommittee have criticized the FAA for waiting until after a disaster to take safety actions, and have urged more proactive safety oversight."

In an effort to remedy that, Oberstar introduced a new bill that he said would mandate "minimum standards to protect the health and safety of crews and spaceflight participants," while taking into account the "inherently risky nature of human spaceflight."

Most observers give Oberstar's bill zero chance of passage. But Polispace's James Muncy, a policy consultant who helped push along last year's law, says he and his clients in the suborbital spaceflight industry are sympathetic to the safety concerns.

"It is the industry’s absolute paramount goal to learn to fly these things as safely as possible, because obviously it's not a good idea to kill your customers," Muncy told me.

"The question is, how you can become safe. The way you're going to become safe is by flying. You can compress that period of barnstorming that happened in early aviation, but you can't compress it to zero," he said.

That's why the leading entrepreneurs are working with the FAA to flesh out industry-enforced safety standards. Their grouping is known as the Personal Spaceflight Federation , and they hope to spawn a Voluntary Personal Spaceflight Industry Consensus Standards Organization that would operate as Underwriters Laboratories does for electrical items, or the Motion Picture Association of America does for movie ratings.

Although the federation is still getting organized, it's likely to come up with guidelines in the next few months that will flesh out the draft recommendations from the FAA. A spokeswoman for the federation, Diane Murphy, signaled that tomorrow's space passengers will definitely face a much higher safety bar than today's airline passengers. In fact, even the word "passenger" rubs Murphy the wrong way.

"We don’t call them passengers, and that’s for a good reason," Murphy told me. "They're public astronauts. 'Passengers' are passive, and everybody on these flights will be trained."

Feb. 10, 2005 | 9:35 p.m. ET
Spacewalk on the wild side: After a round of denials from Moscow, a U.S.-Russian investigation has confirmed that at least one of the international space station's astronauts roamed into a "keep-out zone" (or KOZ, in NASA-speak) during a spacewalk last month. In a worst-case scenario, the spacewalkers' Russian-made Orlan-M suits could have become contaminated with toxic fuel from the station's thrusters.

The internal NASA memo confirms James Oberg's report for MSNBC.com that the mistake raised concerns at the U.S. space agency, even though the Russians said "nyet problema" at the time:

"Safety procedures are being modified on both sides to ensure future prevention of KOZ violation during spacewalks," according to today's status memo, obtained by MSNBC.com. "No traces of contamination on the Orlan-M suits were found after the EVA-12 incident."

Feb. 10, 2005 | 9:35 p.m. ET
Scientific smorgasbord on the World Wide Web:
The Guardian: We are the final frontier
Defense Tech: Flops, new threats behind Star Wars cuts
New Scientist: Alphabet similarities come in threes
Science @ NASA: Video munchies for your mind

Feb. 9, 2005 | 7:55 p.m. ET
What to tell the aliens: For decades, researchers involved in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence have puzzled over how to code (and decode) messages meant for other civilizations. That goes for science-fiction tales such as "Contact" as well as a long list of real-life attempts to send messages, beginning with the Pioneer plaque and the Arecibo message in the early 1970s.

Such messages usually use intricate coding, including hieroglyphs that refer to the wavelength of the hydrogen transition and mathematical functions. But Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the California-based SETI Institute, suggests that you needn't bother with all that cosmic cryptography. Streaming a cached copy of the Internet should do just fine, he says.

"What we should send is the content of the Google servers on a light beam," Shostak told me. "Don't worry about the coding. That's like the artists in the Lascaux cave worrying about how to paint an antelope so that anthropologists could figure it out 17,000 years later."

Shostak bases that strategy on the idea that any civilization receiving the message is likely to be far more advanced than ours — after all, we've been capable of transmitting signals to the stars for only a few decades. Thus, E.T. and company should be smart enough to figure out the digital encoding on their own.

"If there are truly sophisticated societies out there, that may not be a problem," Shostak said.

OK, so maybe the aliens would see our civilization's seamy side as well as the lofty images we'd like to convey — but at least we'd be providing a realistic representation of our society, without revealing the secrets or horrors that are too hot for the search engines.

But is it realistic to upload huge chunks of data to distant stars? That was the subject of a research paper Shostak presented a few months ago, titled "Limits on Interstellar Messages" (Here's the PDF version of the abstract). Shostak found that it all depends on how you transmit, and how much.

Some scenarios require more electrical power than the current demand for the entire state of California. Others require a transmitting antenna half as wide as Earth itself. On the other end of the scale, Shostak figures that a highly focused infrared laser signal could be sent out by a square mile's worth of transmitting surface and just 10 watts of power.

Shostak said that under the theoretically optimal conditions, it would take less than a tenth of a second to send out the equivalent of the Encyclopedia Britannica — a mere 5 billion bytes, far less than the quadrillions of bytes building up on the Internet. That would make it possible to "ping" a million stars capable of supporting life, delivering a digital encyclopedia for each star system to peruse.

Shostak sees that as the most efficient way to send out a beacon letting other civilizations know they're not alone. But this reasoning doesn't apply merely to transmitting signals. "It also suggests that SETI researchers should consider looking for stars whose infrared luminosity regularly spikes," Shostak observed.

He laid out yet another potential strategy for interstellar contact: The aliens might set up their transmitters so that they shoot out tightly focused signals, in a direction exactly opposite from that of an interesting cosmic object such as a pulsar. That way, another civilization studying the pulsar would pick up E.T.'s signal as well.

For that reason, pulsars could be among the first targets for observation when the initial group of antennas in the Allen Telescope Array begins operations later this year, Shostak said. "You know that the aliens will be studying pulsars, too," Shostak said.

Some researchers disagree with the whole idea of sending out signals, saying that the best way to contact other spacefaring civilizations is to send out cosmic messages in a bottle . What would you want to tell E.T., and how would you do it? We've addressed this subject before, but this is another opportunity to let me know what you think. I'll publish a selection of your suggestions on Friday.

Feb. 9, 2005 | 7:55 p.m. ET
Red teams rising: More than 100 teams have signed up so far for the second DARPA Grand Challenge, the $2 million robo-car race aimed at encouraging the development of autonomous transport vehicles for the U.S. military. But until recently, the list of confirmed entrants didn't include the front-runner from last year's unfinished race , Carnegie Mellon University's Red Team.

Now the Red Team is back with a vengeance, not only with the upgraded Sandstorm vehicle, but also with another, newer Hummer-based robo-car called H1ghlander. In fact, the Red Team is the first to complete its five-part application for the next phase of the competition. Click on over to the Web site for the Red Team (and "Red Team Too") for video of the vehicles in action, as well as the latest words of wisdom from team co-leader Red Whittaker.

To find out even more about the "Red" behind the Red Team, check out today's profile of Whittaker on Space.com.

Feb. 9, 2005 | 7:55 p.m. ET
Wonder and whimsy on the World Wide Web:
Tech Central Station: Hubble, Hubble, worth the trouble?
Discovery.com: Octopus sheds light on arms
360-degree views of Apollo moon sites (via Slashdot)
The Onion: English major vs. physics major on love 

Feb. 8, 2005 | 10 p.m. ET
Saturn's blue heaven: The Cassini spacecraft has sent back some Saturnian snapshots of a different color, tinged with a heavenly blue rather than the typical butterscotch yellow.

Image: Mimas and Saturn
The shadowed moon Mimas is at the lower edge of this picture, showing a blue slice of Saturn's northern hemisphere. The dark lines are shadows cast by Saturn's rings, which are not visible in this view.
One stunner shows the 247-mile-wide moon Mimas drifting in front of the planet's northern hemisphere, streaked with the shadows of Saturn's rings. Another angle shows similar shadows circling around Saturn's "blue cranium."

Why so blue? The scientists behind Cassini say it's because the upper atmosphere in Saturn's northern hemisphere is relatively cloud-free. Thus, the shorter, bluer wavelengths of sunlight are scattered by atmospheric gases, resulting in the azure appearance. A similar scattering effect is the reason why Earth's skies are blue .

But why are Saturn's northern fringes so cloud-free? The scientists aren't so sure about the answer to that one, although they say the phenomenon "may be related to colder temperatures brought on by the ring shadows cast there."

Image: Saturn's blue north
Shadows cast by Saturn's rings surround the planet's north pole in this image, captured by Cassini's wide-angle camera.
These pictures were taken in December and January by Cassini's narrow-angle and wide-angle cameras. For another cool blue view, check out this snapshot from November. For the "red" side of Saturn, take a second look at this thermal image , released last week.

You can also feast your eyes on our Cassini slide shows on Saturn as well as its mysterious moon Titan . To keep up with the daily flow of Cassini imagery, click on over to the Web sites at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Space Science Institute.

Feb. 8, 2005 | 10 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
Scientific American: String revival
Discover Magazine: Think tank
BBC: Underground search for 'God particle'
Wired.com: What exactly is under the sea?

Image: Heat shield impact site
NASA / JPL / Cornell
A full-color panorama, based on imagery captured by the Opportunity rover last Dec. 28, shows pieces of the rover's heat shield and the disturbed ground of their impact site on Meridiani Planum.

Feb. 7, 2005 | 8:30 p.m. ET
Mars seen on wide-screen: It's been weeks since the Mars rovers marked their anniversaries on the Red Planet, but the happy returns are still being processed back on Earth.

Over the past few days, the rover team has released jaw-dropping, true-color panoramas from Spirit as well as Opportunity. The Opportunity rover's panorama shows the place where its heat shield crashed during the probe's descent a little more than a year ago, making a light reddish mark on the brick-red plain called Meridiani Planum.

The imagery was taken back on Dec. 28 by Opportunity's panoramic camera, but stitching the mosaic together required additional time. Check out the detailed description and the higher-resolution views, which can fill your computer monitor to overflowing.

Spirit's panorama shows what the rover saw during the Thanksgiving weekend back in November, when it was climbing toward Husband Hill. The peak is named after Columbia commander Rick Husband, who died with his six crewmates when the shuttle broke up a little more than two years ago.

Both rovers are still going strong: Opportunity is making tracks across Meridiani Planum's hematite-rich flats, checking out rocks and digging test trenches along the way. Meanwhile, Spirit is reportedly sending back some intriguing data about a rock called Peace, higher up in the Columbia Hills. The rover team hasn't yet said exactly what's so intriguing about the coarse-grained rock, but the microscopic images appear to show knobby accretions or perhaps crystalline shapes that would get a geologist's heart going pitter-pat.

Stay tuned for updates in our "Return to the Red Planet" section.

Feb. 7, 2005 | 8:30 p.m. ET
Boldly going, and going, and going ... You haven't seen the last of that man behind the Virgin Atlantic astronaut visor. The Super Bowl commercial hyping Volvo's XC90 sport utility vehicle and a space-ride sweepstakes will be showing up again and again on cable TV over the next couple of weeks, spokesman Eric Davis told me today.

The ad hypes the BoldlyGo.com Web site, where Internet users can sign up for a chance to win a suborbital space trip on one of the spaceships being built for Virgin chief Richard Branson , the man behind the visor. Monday-morning TV quarterbacks didn't give the spot that high of a rating: The Wall Street Journal, for example, said it "seemed to lack rocket fuel" and struck an unusual risk-taking tone for a company that has traditionally hyped safety.

But the bottom line, I suppose, is whether Volvo will be satisfied with the buzz generated by the promotion over the next few weeks. The contest still has a couple of weeks to run, and the announcement of the winner should make a splash in late March.

Whoever that person is, he or she shouldn't expect to collect the prize anytime soon: The spaceships are still being designed, and it's not yet certain that the venture will fly. In fact, the rules state that if Virgin Galactic doesn't have its commercial spaceflight service up and running by March 2009, the contest winner will get $100,000 in cash instead.

Feb. 7, 2005 | 8:30 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
Space Race News: This space for rent
Nature: Friendly foxes are cleverer
ABC (Australia): Laughter plays tricks with your eyes
New Scientist: Journey to the center of a quake

The fine print: Looking for older items? Check the Cosmic Log archive. Share your perspective on cosmic subjects with Alan Boyle. If you link to this page, you can use http://cosmiclog.msnbc.com or http://www.cosmiclog.com as the address. MSNBC is not responsible for the content of Internet links.


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