If aliens use Twitter would you send them a Tweet? What would you write to beings from another star in just 144 characters? You now have the chance to do just that and send a potential extra-terrestrial civilisation a message using the recently launched Lone Signal Project. Anyone can send a message for free, but it must be noted that further messages come at a cost!
The Lone Signal Project was founded by several entrepreneurs and scientists and is based at the Jamesburg Earth Station in California. You may have heard of this station before as it supported the Apollo 11 Moon landing and actually received some of the first televised images of the astronauts setting foot on the lunar surface. The station will now be utilised to transmit messages into space! The project will beam messages in any Earth language into space alongside binary code. Binary code is a digital representation of text and data which scientists believe would have a much greater chance of being understood by potential other life forms.
The messages are not being sent just anywhere into space, but they are being targeted towards a specific area. They are being sent to the Gliese 526 star system which is located around 17.6 light years away. Gliese 526 is a red dwarf star in the constellation of Bootes. It is listed in the catalogue of Nearby Habitable Stellar Systems thus scientists believe that there may be a planet in the “goldilocks zone” which could potentially sustain life. This zone is so called because it’s not too hot and it’s not too cold, it is just right for life to exist.
This project has been called METI: Messaging Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, in contrast to the on-going project SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. This recent project is not just passively waiting to hear from an alien like the SETI project at the Big Ear Telescope which detected the Wow! Signal (See an article on the Wow! Signal here). It is actively trying to send a message into space with the aim of getting contact back. I know that our world is transmitting into space all the time with radio signals etc, but to actually seek out contact from other life forms worries me personally. I am thinking more of Independence Day and War of the Worlds more so than our cute little friend in ET or the friendly family in our new Digital Theatre Show at the Planetarium Perfect Little Planet!
Attempts to make contact other life forms is a controversial subject with arguments for and against, but this is certainly not the first time we have sent our location out into space. In 1974 a one-time burst of information was sent into space from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. This message was aimed at the M13 globular cluster and included information on numbers, elements such as hydrogen and carbon, DNA, the Solar System, the human body and graphics of the Arecibo telescope. The message was said to be more of a demonstration of the capabilities of the Observatory as M13 is 25 000 light years away, so the message would take 25 000 years to reach the cluster!
Then in 1977 the US launched the Voyager spacecraft. The exterior of each of the craft bears a “Golden Record”, a gold-plated audio-visual disc which contains information about life on Earth, its music and languages and primitive science. So if an alien life form does find the disc it will be treated to Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” which was one of the songs recorded onto the disc! The interesting thing is that Voyager 1 has been travelling through space for over 35 years and has gone beyond the dwarf planet Pluto at this stage. But it would only take approximately 18 hours for data sent by the Lone Signal Project to catch up and pass it! Using radio and other EM wavelengths means that greater distances can be achieved in a shorter timeframe than by sluggish space vehicles.
The Lone Signal Project is certainly unique. It allows the public to become involved and feel a part of it. Users can dedicate a message to someone else. They can also track their messages in real time to see how far they have travelled and view other messages that people around the world have sent. To send more than one message you will have to pay, if you think you need to send our possible neighbours a few messages. The project is even opening up the idea of commercial and private interest in this type of project, in much the same way that Space X has bought into the space travel sector (See an article on Space X here). According to their CEO, Jamie King, the company aims to spark an interest around the globe and eventually hopes to raise money to begin a full-scale transmission project which could cost in the region of £65 million. His vision is to have the required satellite dishes in each hemisphere and bombard other potential worlds.
It will be interesting to follow this project; however I don’t envisage that I will be sending a message myself. But in around 34 years we could be talking about how we have received a message back from the Gliese star system. If that happens let’s hope they are peaceable and not out to exterminate us! It also makes you think about that strange Wow! Signal. Could that have been a single beam of information from an exoplanet much like how the Arecibo message was sent into space as a single burst from Earth? Could there be life out there?
(Article by Sinead McNicholl, Education Support Officer)