The prospect of receiving an alien signal is both exhilarating and daunting, and we’ll actually get to experience it on Wednesday—or at least, a simulation of such a thing, as a group of scientists and artists carry out a fascinating SETI experiment.
On May 24 at 3:00 p.m. ET, the European Space Agency’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) will transmit an encoded message to Earth. A trio of ground-based radio observatories will attempt to receive the signal when it arrives 16 minutes later. The signal, an encoded message developed by artist Daniela de Paulis and her colleagues, will then be made available to the public, who are invited to try to make sense of the message.
The event, which you can watch above, will be livestreamed on Wednesday from 2:15 p.m. to 4:15 p.m. ET. The media event will include scientists, artists, engineers, and other experts.
Of course, no alien civilization is currently beaming messages at us, at least not that we know of, but the experiment, called A Sign in Space, explores this very possibility. Over 30 space scientists, artists, and SETI researchers are helping with the interdisciplinary project (SETI stands for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence), with ESA and space logistics company D-Orbit also taking part.
“Throughout history, humanity has searched for meaning in powerful and transformative phenomena,” de Paulis, a licensed radio operator and an artist in residence at the SETI Institute and Greenbank Observatory, said in a statement. “Receiving a message from an extraterrestrial civilization would be a profoundly transformational experience for all humankind.” The experiment “offers the unprecedented opportunity to tangibly rehearse and prepare for this scenario through global collaboration, fostering an open-ended search for meaning across all cultures and disciplines,” she added.
Three astronomy stations will be ready to receive the signal, namely the SETI Institute’s Allen Telescope Array, the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope at the Green Bank Observatory, and the Medicina Radio Astronomical Station observatory managed by Italian National Institute for Astrophysics. The contents of the message, developed by de Paulis and her collaborators, have not been disclosed.
“This revolutionary presentation of global theater aims to explore the process of decoding and interpreting an extraterrestrial message by engaging the worldwide SETI community, professionals from different fields and the broader public,” the SETI Institute explained. Deciphering a real extraterrestrial signal and its message “would begin an endless and varied process of technological and cultural interpretation that would highlight our limitations, as well as our fundamental need to transcend them,” the institute added.
It’s an interesting idea for a crowd-source tabletop exercise, in which the public is being asked to decode the simulated alien signal. We obviously don’t speak alien languages, but it may be possible for us to find ways of communicating with extraterrestrials through symbolic language or other means. The team is asking contributors to submit scientific data, sketches, thoughts, and other ideas in the effort to decode the signal.
After the observatories process the incoming signal, they’ll post it to the A Sign in Space Discord server for decoding. Anyone interested in contributing to this experiment is welcome to sign up here. A series of discussions will then take place over six to eight weeks following the transmission.