Deep-Space Texting Service Struggles to Pay Earthly Bills

Photograph by European Southern Observatory via Getty Images

An experiment to combine deep-space exploration with social media appears to have faltered over a scientifically mundane issue: paying the electricity bill.

Lone Signal, a New York-based startup that sends text messages from anyone into deep space, has run into financial difficulties two months after it started transmitting from the Jamesburg Earth Station radio telescope in Carmel, Calif. The company is “at a crossroads” and expects to transmit its final message and shut down on Thursday, depending on its ability to secure funding, Lone Signal Chief Executive Officer Pierre Fabre wrote in a blog post today on the company’s website. The company is considering a Kickstarter campaign, and talking with potential investors.

“Our strategy was fairly misguided on a lot of fronts,” Fabre said on Tuesday in an interview. “I think we did an amazing thing and we got this done for relatively little money, but we really didn’t do the kind of outreach we should have done before the launch. We probably either should have been all free or charged a lot more.”

Revenue from the site “barely covers even 2 percent” of the four-person company’s costs, which include $400 per day for electricity and monthly rent on the telescope of more than $10,000, Fabre said. Transmissions have also been hobbled the past two weeks by software problems.

Since June 17, Lone Signal has sent about 7,200 messages toward Gliese 526, a red dwarf star about 17.6 light years from earth. The farthest beam has traveled about 1.1 trillion miles so far, according to the company—a mere blip in the total trip distance, which will take nearly 18 years at the speed of light.

Users of the service can send texts and photos after purchasing credits for about 25¢ each. A text-only “beam,” as the company calls the messages, costs one credit; transmitting a photo costs three. The posts sent so far have ranged from Bible verses to photos of a user’s boyfriend and binary code. Actor Dan Aykroyd composed a lengthy, philosophical treatise, complete with typos. An Australian was compelled to send a photo of her iPhone, which she described as “my favourite thing that isn’t a person.” Customers in the U.S. have sent the greatest quantity of messages,  followed closely by people in the U.K. The service has also drawn users from Taiwan, France, Canada, India, Russia, and Germany, among other nations. Males have sent more than three-quarters of the beams.

The field of space exploration Lone Signal is conducting is called METI—messaging to extraterrestrial intelligence—and has generated controversy because it’s an open question as to what might occur should we arouse the curiosity of a life form far more advanced than humans. Who knows? Maybe an advanced alien intelligence could devise a superior business plan for deep-space texting.

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