Encoded 'alien message' will reach Earth today, but relax: It's just a drill

SETI encouraging everyone to break out their decoder rings, get in on the simulated first-contact fun

Happy first contact day – well, sort of.

A project to beam a simulated extraterrestrial radio message to Earth begins today with a broadcast from Mars, and members of the public are being encouraged to join the international scientific community to help decode it.

The "experiment" is actually more of an art project being staged by radio operator and SETI Institute/Green Bank Observatory artist in residence, Daniela de Paulis, which SETI describes as a piece of "global theater" – a sort of dress rehearsal for how humanity would handle the real thing.

"Receiving a message from an extraterrestrial civilization would be a profoundly transformational experience for all humankind. A Sign in Space 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," De Paulis said. 

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The message, which was encoded by de Paulis and her team and currently undisclosed, will be beamed to Earth by the European Space Agency's ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter today at 19:00 UTC (8PM London time, 5AM Sydney time (May 25), 3PM New York time and noon San Francisco time), and received 16 minutes later, if all goes according to plan. A live stream of the event will begin 45 minutes before the signal is supposed to be transmitted.

Like a theoretical alien signal, the transmission being broadcast for A Sign in Space will be picked up by several radio astronomy observatories, including SETI's Allen Telescope Array in California, the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope at West Virginia's Green Bank Observatory and the Medicina Radio Astronomical Station near Bologna, Italy.

Once the transmission has been received, the three facilities participating will process it and release it publicly for anyone who wishes to participate to have a chance at decoding it. The idea, said Allen Telescope Array project scientist Dr Wael Farah, is to get other disciplines involved in the decoding process who can bring cultural and philosophical knowledge to the table that astronomers and other scientists may not have.

"This experiment is an opportunity for the world to learn how the SETI community, in all its diversity, will work together to receive, process, analyze, and understand the meaning of a potential extraterrestrial signal," Farah said. 

The project is soliciting "scientific data, thoughts, sketches, drawings, and ideas for the technical decoding and cultural interpretation of the message" through its website; eager participants can also join the A Sign in Space Discord server to take part. 

Zoom-based public discussions will be held after the event as well, giving participants the chance to "consider the societal implications of detecting a signal from an extraterrestrial civilization" which, hopefully, is more exciting than encouragement to drink your Ovaltine. ®

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