Pixel Tracker

Sunday, February 17 , 2019, 4:18 pm | Partly Cloudy 56º

 
 
 
 
Astronomy

Dennis Mammana: Sending a Message to the Stars Not an Overnight Delivery

View the Keystone of Hercules and M13 after dark this week. Click to view larger
View the Keystone of Hercules and M13 after dark this week. (Creators.com illustration)

On Nov. 16, 1974, astronomers sent skyward a cryptic three-minute radio signal from the newly dedicated radio telescope with a 1,000-foot diameter in Arecibo, Puerto Rico. It carried into the heavens the story of our world, our species and our understanding of the cosmos.

The signal was sent in the direction of the constellation Hercules, toward a giant globular star cluster known by the less-than-poetic name of M13. They chose M13 because among the cluster’s hundreds of thousands of stars might exist at least some planets where technologically advanced life could exist.

Today, however — more than four decades later — no one is sitting around awaiting a response, for, you see, even traveling at the remarkable speed of light (186,282 miles per second), the signal has journeyed little more than one-thousandth of the way toward its destination. If someone or something should receive and decipher it, a reply would take another 250 centuries to reach us.

It’s not a particularly lively conversation, but that’s OK. No one ever expected a reply. The signal was intended only as a message in a bottle, tossed by the human race to the cosmic sea.

In essence, it said, “We’re here.” And, while we may never know its fate, this message might one day let other beings curious about their own uniqueness know that they are not alone.

It’s all a pretty remarkable concept, if you ask me. And equally remarkable is that we can see this very star cluster with our own eyes on any clear dark night if we know just where to look.

During early May, gaze low in the northeast sky after dark to find the Keystone of Hercules about midway between the bright star Vega and the tiny arc of stars known as Corona Borealis.

From a dark-sky site with no moonlight, identify the Keystone and look about one-third of the way between the most northwestern and the most southwestern stars for a faint fuzzy patch of light.

You may not see it at first, so try a trick used frequently by astronomers. Instead of staring directly at this spot, look slightly off to its side. When not looking directly at it, you should see its hazy light more easily.

If you can’t spot it with your eyes alone, aim binoculars in its direction and you’ll have little trouble picking it up.

This seemingly insignificant smudge is one of a hundred or so globular star clusters known throughout our Milky Way galaxy. These contain hundreds of thousands of relatively old stars bound together by gravitation, the same force that holds us to the Earth.

Although M13 is barely visible to the unaided eye on a clear dark night, aim a small telescope toward it and you’ll be stunned by the thousands of stars you can see within its spherical form. You will surely exclaim, “It’s full of stars!”

And, if there are alien stargazers living in M13, imagine what they might see in their sky. The stars would appear hundreds of times more concentrated than in the best skies above Earth, and nighttime would be an exceedingly rare and bone-chilling experience.

Click here to learn more about the Arecibo message from Wikipedia.

Dennis Mammana is an astronomy writer, author, lecturer and photographer working from under the clear dark skies of the Anza-Borrego Desert in the San Diego County backcountry. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter: @dennismammana. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

Talk to Us!

Please take Noozhawk's audience survey to help us understand what you expect — and want — from us. It'll take you just a few minutes. Thank you!

Get Started >

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made using a credit card, Apple Pay or Google Pay, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments and a mailing address for checks.

Thank you for your vital support.

Become a Noozhawk Supporter

First name
Last name
Email
Select your monthly membership
Or choose an annual membership
×

Payment Information

Membership Subscription

You are enrolling in . Thank you for joining the Hawks Club.

Payment Method

Pay by Credit Card:

Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover
One click only, please!

Pay with Apple Pay or Google Pay:

Noozhawk partners with Stripe to provide secure invoicing and payments processing.
You may cancel your membership at any time by sending an email to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click Here to Get Started >

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.