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It seems almost too amazing to contemplate. Measured from its antennae, Pioneer 10 extends less than 3 m (9 feet) and weighs about 270 kg (570 lb.). Its power comes from four nuclear generators each of which provided only 40 watts at launch, 29 years ago. Now that spacecraft is almost 12 billion km alway (7 billion miles). Despite the immense distance and the tiny onboard power source, a message from Pioneer 10 was successfully detected on April 28/01 by a tracking station in Spain. Some people might wonder how signals from Pioneer 10 are recognized from so far away. Apparently there is a new analytical technique based on chaos theory, which may enable scientists to sift real signals out of background noise.

Pioneer 10 is justly famous. For a start, in 1983 it became the first man-made object to pass beyond the orbit of the planet Pluto and thus out of the solar system. In addition, Pioneer 10 carries greetings from mankind, in the form of a 15×22 cm gold plaque. Designed by astronomers Frank Drake and Carl Sagan, the plaque depicts male and female human figures as well as diagrams of our solar system, our position in the Milky Way galaxy, and the spacecraft itself. Until February 1998, Pioneer 10 was the most distant man-made object. Since then Voyager 1 has surpassed that claim to fame. Nevertheless Pioneer 10 is still special since it is the only spacecraft moving away from the path of our solar system through the galaxy. Neither Voyager 1 nor Pioneer 10 appears to have left the heliopause, the region in space bathed by plasma particles from the sun. Beyond that point, only galactic cosmic rays will impact the spacecraft. Pioneer 10 could potentially wander for two million years, the experts tell us, before it reaches the red star Aldebaran in the constellation Taurus, about 68 light years away.

The 1972 greeting plaque was our first effort at contacting unknown beings in space. The only other attempt was a high-powered radar broadcast (lasting 3 minutes in 1974) which was meant to depict (if strings of signals were lined up correctly), diagrams of some important organic molecules, the structure of DNA and the form of a human being. The message was aimed at the globular star cluster M13, about 25,000 light years away.

Many people wonder for whom the greetings were intended. Really, the target audience was people here on earth. The greetings were a platform to communicate the idea that life originated spontaneously on earth and that it should also have done so frequently elsewhere in the universe. Dr. Drake’s argument was that our star (the sun) is a very ordinary source of energy and yet here we are. Since there are billions of other stars in our galaxy and billions of other galaxies, there should be countless intelligent societies in space.

Both Drs. Drake and Sagan (designers of the plaque on Pioneer 10), were closely connected to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). Frank Drake, in fact, conducted the first radio search for intelligent radio communications from deep space. This search, carried out in 1960, was called Project Ozma. The SETI program, with similar objectives to Project Ozma, continues. With advances in technology, the effort is now 100 trillion times more sensitive than it was 40 years ago. The actual scanning of the heavens for artificial radio signals is now called Project Phoenix. It was thus named in 1993 when American government funding for the project was cancelled. The project now depends on private donors for its 4-5 million dollar annual budget. Incidently, Project Phoenix has been trying to detect transmissions from Pioneer 10. It was not successful on attempts in February and March of this year, but we now realize that a message must be sent to the craft in order to receive one back. This process takes almost 22 hours. Pioneer 10 represents a wonderful opportunity for SETI to distinguish artificial transmissions from the noise of deep space. Certainly they need to practice on something.

After 40 years, and the expenditure of millions of dollars, no confirmed artificially-produced extraterrestrial signal has ever been found. That, as far as the scientists involved are concerned, does not necessarily mean there are no messages to be detected. These scientists will never give up because they have an ulterior agenda. What they seek is not to contact other beings, but rather to influence the thinking of people here on earth. As one document on SETI reports (http://www.seti.org/Page.aspx?pid=558) concerning the impact of a positive identification of an extraterrestrial message: “The effect on society might be as profound and long lasting as when Copernicus displaced the Earth from the center of our universe.” (p. 11) On that topic, astronomer Timothy Ferris remarks: “The Copernican revolution bred the cosmological principle, which rules out theories that place humankind in the center of the universe or any other special location.” (The Whole Shebang p. 291) What astronomers are saying is that man has no special significance either in time or space. In other words these people automatically reject the Bible’s picture of man’s place in the creation and in history. We can see all too clearly what happens when society rejects or ignores God. This is not however to say that the Pioneer 10 data are bad, they aren’t — but just that views on intelligent life in space are misguided.

M.J. Masters
June 2001

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