In an extraordinary display of interstellar curiosity, Japanese astronomers stand ready today, peering into the vastness of space. They await a reply to a message sent 40 years ago, a message that was aimed at the distant and bright Altair star.
It all began in 1983 when astronomers Masaki Morimoto and Hisashi Hirabayashi, utilizing a telescope at Stanford University, composed a greeting to the cosmos. Their message was encoded with 13 illustrations showcasing our solar system, the progression of life on Earth, and the complex architecture of our DNA.
The team at Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s (JAXA), now led by Shinya Narusawa, has prepared to listen for a response today at precisely 2 pm BST. The chosen date isn’t arbitrary; it coincides with Japan’s Tanabata star festival, a celebration symbolizing the mythical meeting of two deities, Orihime and Hikoboshi, the latter represented by Altair.
Altair is no ordinary star. Positioned 16.7 light-years from Earth, it stands as the 12th brightest star adorning our night sky. Astronomers from the University of Hyogo have estimated that today marks the earliest point at which a reply might reach us from any advanced civilization inhabiting the region near Altair.
The challenge is immense. With only an hour designated for receiving the message and utilizing a 64-meter antenna located in Saku, Nagano Prefecture, the team will focus their attention on any signals emanating from the direction of the star.
Though Altair does not appear to harbor any planets, and the chance of receiving a reply seems slim, hope lingers in the words of Narusawa: “A large number of exoplanets have been detected since the 1990s,” he told The Asahi Shimbun, “Altair may have a planet whose environment can sustain life.”
The original dispatch of the message came as part of a collaboration with a Japanese weekly comic anthology. Its conception was not without a touch of whimsy. Hirabayashi later revealed that the idea had been born during a jovial and intoxicated discussion. Yet, his belief in the existence of extraterrestrial life was genuine.
“I believe in aliens, but they are very difficult to find,” he mused. But the venture was not without its rewards; Hirabayashi received an array of messages from inspired schoolchildren, validating the endeavor.
Today, as astronomers align their equipment toward the heavens, we are reminded of the unquenchable human thirst for connection, understanding, and the exploration of the unknown. Whether or not a reply graces our ears, the attempt itself resonates as a profound and poetic gesture, reaching out across the void, a testament to our species’ boundless curiosity and hope.
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