Hackers in space

Intelligent life. It's a scarcity on our own planet, so we look beyond our atmosphere, hoping to find something, somewhere out there in the vastness of space that has more than two or three brain cells to rub together.

Have you ever seen the kinds of things we've sent into space for others to find and make sense of? I've often myself wondered what our own scientists, hackers, and problem-solvers would make of these messages.

In 1972 and 1973, Pioneer 10 and 11 were respectively sent off into space. Both were labeled with a gold-plated aluminum-alloy plaque engraved with information about humans, Earth and our solar system. Warning: If you zoom in on the image, it includes drawn nude human anatomy.

On November 16, 1974, Scientists at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico blasted 1,679 bits (not bytes!) into the sky at 1 bit per second, aiming their transmitter at Globular Cluster M13, some 25,000 light years away. How much information can be contained in 1,679 bits? What would you do with it? Would you even know where to begin? It's not divisible by 8, so it isn't using "bytes" in the traditional way you would expect. Remember, this is 1974 and the message is intended to be received and decoded by intelligent life.

The answer is interesting, and the binary stream above was crafted by some of 1974's most brilliant minds.

In 1977, two identical Voyager Golden Records were sent into space aboard Voyager 1 and 2. The record itself contained several recordings including an audio representation of captured brain waves. It was pressed in copper and plated with gold, but was technologically identical to vinyl phonograph records of the era, and I believe it would likely play on any regular phonograph. The record itself was contained in a cover (shown below, click to zoom) that contained similar information to the Pioneer Plaque.

Would an alien civilization understand what to do with any of these? What would Earth's own hackers and scientists do with information like this if we found it? Things like this fascinate me, and the 1970s were certainly an exciting time for technology and communications, which includes the space program.

The Apollo 13 mission itself (April 11-17, 1970) is proof of the kinds of things that hackers can do. While the mission was a failure, geniuses hard at work within NASA were busy finding ways to force equipment to do things that simply "couldn't be done" in order to bring the crew home safely. I don't know if it was actually spoken in real life, but in the movie Apollo 13, Flight Director Krantz tells off an engineer who is concerned about equipment being used unconventionally: "I don't care about what anything was DESIGNED to do, I care about what it CAN do." If that's not the hacker spirit, I don't know what is!

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