We decoded NASA’s messages to aliens by hand

We decoded NASA’s messages to aliens by hand


(electronic music) – In 1977, NASA sent two golden records into space aboard the Voyager
One and Two spacecraft. The Voyager probes have become two of the farthest reaching objects
ever launched by humanity. And the golden records,
real functioning LPs, contained something utterly unique: audio and images from Earth. By 2030, both Voyager One and Two will cease communications for good. And while they won’t be
able to beam information back to Earth, they’re going to continue sailing through space at almost
60,000 kilometers per hour. The hopes are that one or even both of these records will be intercepted by another advanced civilization, revealing a treasure trove of information that will teach whoever finds them about our pale blue dot of
a home, light years away. But in order for any one or any thing to see the images contained on the record, they’ll have to decode this.
(electronic tones) And we’re going to show you how. (electronic tones) (electric music) If extraterrestrials do
find the golden records, the first thing they’ll come across is its cover which looks a lot like this. It contains a handful of unique symbols that properly explain how to play the messages sent from Earth. And at first glance,
they’re pretty complicated. I tried to think how would an
alien look at this picture? And there are always two requirements. You wanted things to be as easy as possible to understand,
as clear as possible. But you also wanted in a limited number of pictures to have as much information as possible in each picture, so those two requirements are kind of at odds. That’s Jon Lomberg, Carl Sagan’s long-time friend and collaborator. Jon helped curate the contents of the golden record
and designed the cover. – It’s permeated the culture
in a lot of different ways. – The largest of the designs
on the cover is the pulsar map. It helps explain our
location in the universe by triangulating the Earth’s distance from various neutron
stars, collapsed stars that give off pulses of
radiation or pulsars. While this information doesn’t
help decode the record, it would give anyone who finds it a clue as to where it
came from in the universe. Every other symbol on the cover though is there to explain how to properly play the record and decode the audio. Getting the songs and sounds to play are pretty straightforward. Figure out the correct rotation and speed and they’ll spin just like a
normal record here on Earth. Granted for an alien figuring out how to work the record might
be a challenge in itself. – That should be very
easy for them to discover. But that’s not all that’s on the record. And understanding the rest
of it is a little bit harder. – You might think that the images included on the Voyager spacecraft were printed out or included
in some digital form. But the golden record
isn’t a digital disc. There are no jpegs or tifs included on it. The Voyager’s computer systems
were only 69 kilobytes large, barely enough for one
image, let alone 115. – And at that time in 1977 there was no conventional technology for putting pictures on adeline discs. – NASA had to be a lot craftier with the technology that they
had available at the time. Especially with the amount of data they were looking to send and they managed to encode that image data within the audio waveforms themselves. But in order for us to find that data, we need to figure out the rest of the symbols on the cover of the record. Starting on the bottom right we have a diagram depicting hydrogen, the most abundant gas in the universe. I spoke with Jacqueline Van Gorkom, a professor of astronomy
at Columbia University. She explained to me that
once in a blue moon, the electron in a hydrogen atom changes the direction of its spin. – And so this transition which happens spontaneously once every 10 million years, it makes a little bit of energy. So it emits at 21 centimeter wavelengths. – The hydrogen atom depicted on the cover of the record is undergoing
that very unique change, called a hyper-fine transition. And what it emits, the 21 centimeter line, is a very specific radio wavelength that astronomers use to map
the galaxy, 1420 megahertz. – It’s sort of mind-boggling. – NASA uses that 21 centimeter line as a constant for all the
other symbols on the record. If you convert that 1420
megahertz signal into seconds, you get 7.042 times 10 to
the negative 10 seconds. Or .7 nanoseconds, and that one number helps us unlock the rest
of the record’s symbols. For instance here’s a
side-view of the record that depicts this binary
number around its diameter. When converted to decimal and multiplied by our hydrogen line constant, we get 3229 seconds or
roughly 53.82 minutes. The total run time of the
record from beginning to end. And on the top-down view, converting this binary number to
decimal and multiplying by .7 nanoseconds you get 3.59 seconds. The time it would take for
one rotation of the record. So when we play the record that fast, we should hear these sounds. Greetings in 55 languages.
(speaking foreign language) Samples of music from around the world. (“Dark was the Night”
by Blind Willie Johnson) Sounds of Earth such as oceans, birds, thunder and whales.
(waves crashing) And on the other side, this.
(electronic tones) It’s that sound that contains all of the image data for the photos and drawings contained
on the golden record. And using the process described
in the last few symbols on the cover, we can render the images. This is where things
get really interesting. The top right symbol shows
how the waveform data should be broken up with each section of the waveform taking
.008 seconds to play. And according to the symbol below that, each of those sections of data completes one out of a
total of 512 scan lines that make up a completed image. – To understand the rest of that diagram, you have to understand
how an old-fashioned cathode-ray tube television worked. And few enough people understood it at the time when they were still in use. Fewer understand it now.
– And while I don’t understand cathode ray tubes,
I tried an alternate method. Using Audacity, a free audio program, I selected .008 milliseconds of audio data between each peak in the waveform roughly corrosponding to the area selected on the cover of the album. I exported that data into a CSV file. The data being exported is essentially just number values based on the volume of waveforms at different points along that .008 millisecond section. When you import the CSV into Excel, you can use conditional
formatting to assign a different color value for
different decibel levels. Lower decibel samples
translate into lighter grays and higher decibels into
darker grays and after doing this for 12 hours and
512 times, we got this. Now a circle isn’t the most
exciting thing in the world. But it has a very important purpose. If we look at the last
image on the record’s cover, we’ll see the calibration circle. It’s a major way point, if aliens manage to decode a shape that matches this, then they’ll know that
they’re onto something. There’s no way we’re going to do that for the remaining 114 images. But fortunately we live in a world where code can help, and
maybe aliens will too. We reached out to Manuel Arturo Izquierdo, an anthropologist who wrote his own code in one night to make this
process much, much faster. – Basically the idea is
take a thread of numbers and fold them in a way you can convert the thread into a kind of surface, yeah? – Manuel’s code takes these
.008 millisecond symbols and folds them as they would appear in an old television
set, rendering an image. He uploaded the code to
Github for others to use and Emily Malec Brown, a
developer on our product team, helped get the code up and
running on my computer. To our astonishment, the images appeared right before our eyes, proving that even 40 years later and with completely different technology, the messages could still
be properly decoded. (“Dark was the Night”
by Blind Willie Johnson) So with the help of an astronomer, an artist, a coder, an anthropologist, Microsoft Excel, and Python, we were able to decode the golden record. But let’s not forget, we’re not the intended audience for this. Is an extraterrestrial civilization really going to have a shot at this? For John that’s really besides the point. – Whatever happens to it in space, whatever its unknown destiny is, I think it represents a high
water mark of our civilization when we dreamed the
biggest dreams, really. And I hope it will serve as an example, an inspiration for
people to keep dreaming. (acoustic guitar music) – Hey everyone, thanks
for watching our video. Check out Vox.com’s golden record video where they have a selection of the images and some of the audio and
songs that played as well. And don’t forget to subscribe to our Verge Science YouTube channel, thanks.

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