Searching for Alien Life, One Text at a Time

Jamesburg Earth Station Photograph by Vern Fisher/ZUMA Press/Corbis

OMG! Ur where?!
Hit me up, Gleese-peeps! #spacerocks
Hey alien– Check out my junk!
U have Twitter there?
Can u abduct my jerk boyfriend?

From 18 light years away, the wisdom of our terrestrial crowds may look suspect. Any intelligent life forms in the neighborhood of Gliese 526—a red dwarf star thought to harbor planets with habitable, earth-like atmospheres—may rue June 18. That’s when a space-technology startup plans to start sending text messages and photos into deep space, toward the distant star. The company, Lone Signal, has leased a radio telescope to beam the messages, along with a carrier signal that explains Earth’s position, outlines the elements of the periodic table, and defines the hydrogen atom in binary code.

The scientific part of the message will be sent continuously as a way to alert anyone out there that we are here and have fully sorted hydrogen, the universe’s most abundant element. The other part is capitalistic, a social-media venture to allow the deep diversity of humanity to send personal messages and images across deep space. While it is true that our current television and phone content becomes digital flotsam adrift in the cosmos, the average Storage Wars episode or NBA Finals game isn’t going very far, due to the weakness of those signals.

Lone Signal plans to continuously transmit content from cultures around the globe, not just blips of data, Jacob Haqq-Misra, the company’s chief science officer, explained in a video posted on the company’s website. In a telephone interview, Haqq-Misra says such radio signals offer the best format for exploring deep space, especially with relatively closer star systems that make round-trip transmissions possible within a human lifespan. Lone Signal, he adds, hopes to “inspire a lot of passion in the space sciences and get people thinking about their role in the greater universe.”

The company will let you transmit one text message for free (with a 144 character limit) before requiring the purchase of credits in blocks of four for 99¢. Each subsequent text costs one credit, and the price for a photo is three. If you’re feeling extra chatty, $99.99 will buy 4,000 credits. The company also plans to let users track how far their “beams” have traveled and dedicate messages to loved ones. The messages—sent toward a different star system roughly once a month—will be conveyed via the 10-story Jamesburg Earth Station radio telescope near Carmel, Calif., on which the company has a 30-year lease.

This field of space exploration, called METI (messaging to extraterrestrial intelligence), has generated some controversy because of the open question as to what might occur should we arouse the curiosity of a life form far more advanced than humans. Any intelligence that decodes our signals and has mastered the hurdles of long-distance space travel might be inherently dangerous to humans, a premise explored in countless science fiction movies. Haqq-Misra, who is also a researcher at Blue Marble Space Institute of Science in Seattle, collaborated on a paper on the subject last year, concluding that “the benefits of radio communication on Earth most probably outweigh the potential harm of detection by extraterrestrial watchers; however, the uncertainty regarding the outcome of contact with extraterrestrial beings creates difficulty in assessing whether or not to engage in long-term and large-scale METI.” Translation: Maybe this is dangerous for us, but no one really knows.

Others aren’t so sure Lone Signal’s deep-space distinction even matters. “Any society capable of traveling from light years away will be able to pick up signals we’ve been sending willy-nilly,” Seth Shostak, an astronomer at the SETI Institute, told the Verge. “The dog is out of the bag, and a stronger signal doesn’t change that situation.” Haqq-Misra agrees that our 70-plus years of electromagnetic emissions already make human existence clear to any sentient life that may care. “The fact that earth exists and has intelligent life is not a secret,” he said. “That’s just a fact.”

There’s some precedent for this type of hunt for alien life, albeit minus the text messages and potential photos of junk. In November 1974, the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico sent a brief coded message to a star cluster in the constellation Hercules, nearly 25,000 light years away. That transmission hasn’t arrived yet. Any holler-backs from texts sent to Gliese 526—a mere 17.6 light years away—won’t return to us until around 2050. Plenty of time to refine our apologies.

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