Let’s be clear: The map to Earth that NASA sent into space aboard the Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft is not dangerous. It certainly hasn’t “made it a lot easier for aliens to attack Earth,” it won’t “lead to extraterrestrials taking over” our planet, and no one is rethinking this “unintended ‘foolish’ act.”
These claims, which have been seeping through the news media over the past 24 hours, are based on a misinterpretation of a story we published about this map in honor of the 40th anniversary of the Voyager launches.
That story describes how 14 known pulsars can be used as galactic signposts to help aliens find Earth, should the spacecraft bearing them across the cosmos be intercepted in the near future.
As part of reporting that story, I interviewed my dad, Frank Drake, who created the map in 1971. During our conversation, we talked about how the pulsar map might fit into the current debate about deliberately sending messages to extraterrestrial civilizations.
His answer: “In those days, all the people I dealt with were optimists, and they thought the ETs would be friendly,” Drake says. “Nobody thought, even for a few seconds, about whether this might be a dangerous thing to do.”
All this statement means is that today’s debate was not occurring in the 1970s. It’s several cosmic leaps of logic between that and fearing “this decision could prove to be disastrous,” or that he’s having reservations “about the decision to guide aliens to Earth,” or that he is suggesting “the maps could be dangerous.”
When asked how he would respond to these statements, Drake says: “The pulsar map is not dangerous at all. It will likely never even be seen by extraterrestrials. Even then, it will be perhaps millions of years from now.”
The truth is that Drake isn’t re-thinking the safety of sending the pulsar maps into deep space; he’s not even opposed to the idea of sending targeted messages to ET once we know where they are—he just thinks it’s not a good use of our available resources, which ought to be invested in detecting ET instead.
Kathryn Denning, the York University anthropologist we interviewed for the original story, agrees that the map on its own is not a significant risk when it comes to humans announcing our presence.
After all, we’ve been passively broadcasting radio signals from Earth for decades. These messages travel at the speed of light, wash over whatever is in their path, and are easily detected from afar.
By contrast, the Voyager and Pioneer spacecraft aren’t aimed at anything in particular, and detecting them from afar would require extraordinarily powerful radar systems and a heaping dose of luck.
What’s more, it will take them tens of thousands of years to brush by the next stars along their paths. Even then, the chances of the probes colliding with a planet or spaceship are so astronomically small they’re essentially zero.
While the concept of crafting a map for aliens may spark questions about much more targeted efforts to make contact, in reality, the Pioneer plaque and the Voyager Golden Record carrying the pulsar map are not so much messages to the stars as messages to ourselves.
The concept of NASA committing a foolish, dangerous act that might reap the wrath of a violent alien civilization is certainly compelling. It’s also fictional—or in the jargon of today, fake news.
Media organizations are already under attack from those who would deem anything disagreeable “fake.” We continually have to prove that facts are actually facts, that the truth needs telling, and that reason, pragmatism, and logical thought have places in civil discourse and in society.
There certainly is a place for fantasy when talking about the cosmos and how we fit into it, but that place is not in news stories sold as factual.