Simulated ET To Phone Home From Mars This Afternoon

In science fiction movies, communicating with aliens is easy. In real life, though, we think it will be tough. Today, you’ll get your chance to see how tough when a SETI project uses the European Space Agency’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter to send a simulated alien message to the Earth. The transmission is scheduled to happen at 1900 UTC and, of course, the signal will take about 16 minutes to arrive here on planet Earth. You can see a video about the project, A Sign in Space, below.

You don’t need to receive the message yourself. That will be the job of observatories at the SETI Institute, the Green Bank Observatory, and the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics. They’ll make the signal available to everyone, and you can join others on Discord or work solo and submit your interpretation of the message.

Drake’s message properly arranged

There are a host of issues involved in alien communication. What communication medium will they use? How will they encode their message? Will the message even make sense? Imagine an engineer from 1910 trying to find, decode, and understand an ad on FM radio station 107.9. First, they’d have to find the signal. Then figure out FM modulation. Then they’d probably wonder what the phrase “smartphone” could possibly mean.

When [Frank Drake] created a test message to send to aliens via the Arecibo dish, almost no one could decode it unless they already knew how it worked. But even looking at the message in the accompanying image, you probably can only puzzle out some of it. Don’t forget; this message was created by another human.

If you want a foreshadowing of how hard this is, you can try decoding the bitstream yourself. Of course, that page assumes you already figured out that the stream of bits is, in fact, a stream of bits and that it should be set in an image pattern. You also have the advantage of knowing what the right answer looks like. It could easily become an extraterrestrial Rorschach test where you find patterns and meaning in every permutation of bits.

Speaking of the Drake message, it saddens us to think that Arecibo is gone. The closest we think we’ve come to intercepting alien messages is the Wow signal.

31 thoughts on “Simulated ET To Phone Home From Mars This Afternoon

  1. Can’t wait to see some radio telescope operators jump out of their seat when they receive the signal, only to be let down when they hear “you didn’t get the memo?”

  2. There’s the famous Drake equation that tries to map how many civilizations could be out there to answer.

    But there’s one possibility they didn’t think of. Every advanced civilization probably invented computers first before they could effectively handle the information to deal with other advanced tech. However, with computers inevitably comes AI, and each civilization in turn offloads all the tedious thinking tasks to AI without care that it’s not sentient or intelligent in a real sense. A few generations later, their society regresses back to the stone age because nobody has to use their brains for anything and technology slowly becomes “magic”. With such an intellectual decline, the smartest people alive would have to spend a lifetime just to catch up with what the machines are doing.

    So basically, any civilization that has reached the level of technology to receive and send back a reply is likely to already be a zombie – a society that simply goes through the motions in a robotic fashion, completely uninterested of the universe around it.

    1. There’s another mistake we also often do: We do judge others by our own standards.
      Considering our sick, xenophobic phantasies regarding foreign life being hostile,
      this says a lot about us as a civilization.Thanks America, thanks Hollywood!

        1. Solaris is a fantastic book – but the movie has not much to do with the book. The movie concentrates on the “love story”, but the real story of Solaris is the ocean – and the tragic inability of humans to communicate with anything not human. I can only recommend to read the book! It’s deeply philosophical.

          1. (in fact there are two movies – the Russian movie of Andrei Tarkowski and the Hollywood movie of Steven Soderbergh. Tarkowski’s movie is better, but also fails to catch the spirit of the book.)

        1. Point being, there exists a “Turing trap”, where incremental improvements in AI will lead to a situation where it will appear to all intents and purposes as intelligent even when it’s not, simply because the people who are judging the AI are unable to tell the difference.

          At such point, if the AI were to “take over”, or given control either way, it would replace the intelligent species with a non-intelligent simulacrum, a zombie version of the society that created it.

          1. If you can’t detect the difference, there is no difference. Intelligence has evolved through natural selection. That process only works if there’s a difference in behavior.

  3. Is there any info on the frequency or encoding or anything at all that would allow a ham op to receive the signal? Or even if it is amateur-receivable and not, like, -100dB on some weird frequency and digitally encoded and encrypted? The press release didn’t seem to mention it. As much as I love my waterfall display I do not think I can monitor the entire RF spectrum at once and pick out something like this.

  4. If Aliens really wanted to make first contact they would Rickroll us on common broadcast frequencies, this would not only show that they had an extensive understanding of our culture but that they were trying to show they’re non-hostile through humour. “I just wanna tell you how I’m feeling
    Gotta make you understand”

  5. NASA has a relevant, free ebook: “Archaeology, Anthropology, and Interstellar Communication” edited by Douglas A. Vakoch. It’s a collection of interesting articles about the history of SETI and the role that archaelogists and anthropologists (and folks in related fields) have played and can play in the search — and discovery, hopefully! These fields have already had success in deciphering distant (with respect to time) languages and have long been recognized as important to SETI. (The book was published in 2012 and I read it some years ago, so the above is my possibly hazy memory of it.)

    The book can be downloaded in MOBI, EPUB, and PDF formats from:

  6. We will not be able to communicate to alien cultures until we discover subspace communications.
    In the meantime, we’re just not worth the bother for them.

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