Hologram of earth
Julie Hambleton
Julie Hambleton
December 14, 2023 ·  4 min read

50 Years Ago NASA Sent a Map Into Space to Help Aliens Find Earth—Now They’ve Got An Awesome Update

In 1971, NASA sent a map into space developed by astrophysicists Carl Sagan and Frank Drake. This map aimed to help any Aliens who may come across it find their way to Earth. Now, 50 years later, the map is being re-done to make it more fool-proof. (1)

NASA Sent A Map Into Space For Aliens 50 Years Ago

The map that NASA sent into space in the 70s is probably something that you’ve seen before. In fact, its imagery has been used on t-shirts, and some people have even had it tattooed on their bodies. This map has drawings on it depicting friendly humans and a way for the extraterrestrials (ETs) to find Earth.

The minds behind the map were astrophysicists, Carl Sagan and Frank Drake. The idea came about while NASA was planning to send the Pioneer 10 to Jupiter. Not only would this be the first spacecraft to go to the largest planet in our solar system, but it would be then flung far out into outer space. This means it would also be the first spacecraft to travel beyond our own solar system.

Sagan and Drake thought it might be a good idea to include a greeting from humans to show that we are a reasonably friendly bunch. They also thought they should include some sort of map so that anyone who may come across it will know where to find us. Of course, they assumed that aliens likely don’t speak English, so they made the message a drawing depicting a man and a woman waving etched into a gold plate. The map was created using what are called pulsars.

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What Are Pulsars?

Pulsars are dead stars that were at one point in their history really big – far bigger than Earth’s sun. They spin really fast, usually hundreds of times per second. They are also potentially unique enough to be identifiable. They determined 14 pulsars that could identify Earth’s position and put the necessary information on their rotation rates into the map.

The map itself looks like a sort-of-line explosion. Each line connects our planet to one of the 14 pulsars. The lines are more or less proportional to distance and hatch marks reveal each pulsar’s rotation rate. Combining all of this information together, one can presumably find their way to Earth. All of this, of course, assumes that ETs know about and understand pulsars.

The Problem With The Map NASA Sent Into Space

There is more than one issue with that map. For one, the chances that the map is ever being discovered by aliens is slim. The second is the fact that by the time they do, it could be highly inaccurate. This is because pulsars slow down over time, which would make the map unusable within tens of millions of years. While that may seem like a lot of time, when we’re talking about the opportunity for ETs to stumble across a small, quiet spacecraft floating around in the cosmos, we need all the time we can get.

A New Map

Luckily, Frank Drake’s daughter Nadia found the original drawings for the map tucked away in her parent’s home. She showed them to her husband, Scott Ransom, a well-respected pulsar astronomer. He realized the eventual shortcomings of his wife’s dad’s map and made a new one that should be more accurate and not have an expiration date.

This new map uses pulsars both in and outside of our galaxy, The Milky Way. The benefit of having more knowledge now than they did in the 70s, Ransom is using millisecond pulsars. These pulsars have another type of identifier over the others, the orbital period of the system, which doesn’t change over billions of years. They also spin faster and last longer.

Ransom’s map also includes clusters of pulsars that orbit the Milky Way. His design allows the map to be functional for billions of years. Of course, the old maps are still out there (there were four sent out), and there are no currently no spacecraft scheduled to be launched soon.

Is it a good idea to send out a map in the hopes that aliens find it when we don’t know anything about who they are? Many are (rightfully) concerned that unfriendly aliens could find it and cause us big problems. Others like the idea of a message showing ETs that may find it billions of years from now that humans, at least at one point, existed. What do you think? Do you like the idea of there being a map that could lead aliens right to us in outer space?

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  1. NASA sent a map to space to help aliens find Earth. Now it needs an update. – National Geographic. Sept 30, 2020