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How to Talk to Telescopes


Telescopes in space, such as NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and Hubble Space Telescope, don’t send picture-perfect space selfies to us like the pictures you’re used to seeing. They deliver information encoded as a stream of 1’s and 0’s down to our computers here on Earth that then has to be decoded into the beautiful images we see. Fortunately, many people have worked hard to develop steps to process the data using software and technical know-how to convert them into something that humans can use and admire.

That stream of 1’s and 0’s is called binary code.

Binary code is essentially a system that uses only two digits to represent things (“bi” means two). You can think of each 1 and 0 like an “on” and “off” position of a switch. Another similar system is Morse code, which uses short and long bursts of either sound or light. Binary code is a simple, effective way to talk to machines (computer hardware for example) because with electricity, it’s either on or off.

Our cell phones, computers, and other digital equipment use a 256-letter alphabet if they are based in the English language. Twenty-six of those characters are uppercase letters (A B C D…), 26 are lowercase (a b c d…), plus Arabic numbers (1 2 3 4…), special characters (! @ # $…), as well as characters for spacing, line breaks and even simple sounds. These characters are each assigned an 8-character binary equivalent.

Below you’ll see a chart of uppercase and lowercase English language alphabet characters.

Char Binary Char Binary Char Binary Char Binary
A 01000001 a 01100001 N 01001110 n 01101110
B 01000010 b 01100010 O 01001111 o 01101111
C 01000011 c 01100011 P 01010000 p 01110000
D 01000100 d 01100100 Q 01010001 q 01110001
E 01000101 e 01100101 R 01010010 r 01110010
F 01000110 f 01100110 S 01010011 s 01110011
G 01000111 g 01100111 T 01010100 t 01110100
H 01001000 h 01101000 U 01010101 u 01110101
I 01001001 i 01101001 V 01010110 v 01110110
J 01001010 j 01101010 W 01010111 w 01110111
K 01001011 k 01101011 X 01011000 x 01111000
L 01001100 l 01101100 Y 01011001 y 01111001
M 01001101 m 01101101 Z 01011010 z 01111010
Space 00100000 00101101        

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This badge is inspired by the Chandra X-Ray Observatory “How to talk to spacecraft” feature. For more binary code challenges, visit the Chandra Observatory website.


With thanks to Kim Kowal Arcand and Chandra X-Ray Observatory for this challenge.

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