In 1974, astronomers used the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico to beam a message from humanity to the stars, in one of the most well-known attempts to contact possible alien life. For the 44th anniversary of the Arecibo Message, scientists are reaching out to the public for help in designing an updated version.

The original message was written by Frank Drake – most famous for the Drake equation, which outlines the probability of life beyond Earth – and the legendary science communicator Carl Sagan. It was designed to give any potential recipients a snapshot of what humans are and where we could be found in the cosmos.

Coded in binary, the Arecibo Message contained the numbers one to 10, detailed information of the makeup and structure of our DNA, a "stick figure" outline of a human, our average height and population, info on the solar system and Earth's place in it, and details on the dish used to send the message.

All this was packaged up and on November 16, 1974, beamed towards the star cluster M13. As interesting an experiment as it was, the project wasn't exactly meant to be a serious attempt at making contact. After all, M13 is 25,000 light-years away – meaning any potential response wouldn't arrive for at least 50,000 years – and by the time the signal arrives, the cluster might not even be in the right position anymore.

The real purpose of the project was more as a technical demonstration and to raise public interest in astronomy, and the New Arecibo Message remains true to that spirit. The focus is on getting young people interested in science, and to do so the organizers are reaching out to schools and universities for help in designing a version of the message, updated for the 21st century.

"Our society and our technology have changed a lot since 1974," says Francisco Cordova, director of Arecibo Observatory. "So, if we were assembling our message today, what would it say? What would it look like? What one would need to learn to be able to design the right updated message from the earthlings? Those are the questions we are posing to young people around the world through the New Arecibo Message – the global challenge."

The competition is open to teams of up to 10 students, from kindergarten right up to college-age. First the students need to solve riddles that will appear on the Arecibo website, which involves learning about space, decoding messages and other puzzles. Only then will they be able to register the team and submit their designs for the New Arecibo Message, within a nine-month window.

The winning team of the New Arecibo Message challenge will be announced during Arecibo Observatory Week in October or November 2019, which will be celebrating the 45th anniversary of the message.

View gallery - 2 images