Someday, humanity might receive a message from space that will answer one of the greatest existential questions: is anybody out there? Regardless of the content, a message from an extraterrestrial civilization will be the single greatest event in human history. How would such an event happen, and how would it play out? What will be the repercussions of billions of people suddenly learning that we are NOT alone in the Universe? This question has inspired countless works of science fiction and scientific studies that have attempted to predict (and even quantify) our collective reaction.
This was the purpose behind A Sign in Space, a revolutionary art project designed to simulate a First Contact scenario. This project was the brainchild of Daniela de Paulis, a contemporary artist, and licensed radio operator currently serving as the Artist in Residence at the SETI Institute and the Green Bank Observatory. Together with a team of international experts, including SETI researchers, space scientists, and artists, de Paulis created this campaign to engage the global SETI community and the general public about the possibility of First Contact.
The campaign kicked off at 12:15 pm PDT (03:15 pm EDT) on May 24th, 2023, when the ESA’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) – currently in orbit around Mars – transmitted an encoded message to Earth as part of a live performance. The message was received by four radio observatories on Earth, including the SETI Institute’s Allen Telescope Array (ATA) in California, the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT) in West Virginia, the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) in New Mexico, and the INAF’s Medicina Radio Astronomical Station in Italy.
While de Paulis and her team composed the encoded message, the contents remain unknown, even to most of the collaborating scientists and institutions. The transmission was made as part of a live stream on SETI Live hosted by de Paulis, Franck Marchis, and Victoria Catlett. Marchis is a planetary astronomer at the SETI Institute and the founder and Chief Science Officer of the smart telescope company Unistellar. Catlett is a software engineer at the Green Bank Observatory. During the event, de Paulis, Marchis, and Catlett received the message in real-time and spoke with the artists and scientists involved.
Universe Today caught up with Marchis and de Paulis (by phone and Zoom, respectively), who explained the nature of the message and the inspiration behind it. As de Paulis informed Univers Today, the message was inspired by Cosmicomics (“Le Cosmicomiche”), a series of twelve short novels by Italian author Ital Calvino, released in 1965. Each of these stories takes a scientific fact and creates a story around it. These stories are shared as a memory of an event in the history of the Universe (mostly through a narrator named “Qfwfq.”)
Like the Arecibo Message, the objective was to create a signal that would not be subject to cultural or anthropological bias but something universal. As de Paulis explained, the message was the result of two years of brainstorming alongside her colleagues at the SETI Institute:
“That was the objective. So we have been meeting for two years with a group of specialists, including anthropologists, space lawyers, philosophers, and artists – it was a very diverse group. And after the first year and a half, I realized I was still not happy with the outcome of our monthly meetings. So I decided to meet with a small group of people, and we kept brainstorming ideas. And eventually, we got together – only three of us, three people – which is myself, a computer scientist, and an astronomer. And we finalized the message.
“So it was really the result of two years brainstorming and also looking at ethics and other messages, including the Arecibo message, for example. So we looked at how we have been communicating with extraterrestrials. But of course, the task was the other way around. So we have to flip the table and imagine being an extraterrestrial. So this is why we have to question anthropocentrism in any possible way.”
As noted, the transmission was received at 12:15 pm PDT (03:15 pm EDT) on May 24th, 2023, by the three participating observatories. But as Marchis explained, two other radio antennas also picked up the signal. This included the Atlantic Network of Geodynamic and Space Stations‘s (RAEGE) 12-meter antennas in Yebes, Spain, and the Bochum Observatory‘s 20-meter antenna operated by the German amateur radio satellite society AMSAT-DL.
Marchis, who is not among those familiar with the message’s contents, described what it was like to receive the transmission and what the response from the global community has been like so far:
“Only three people on this planet know the content of this message, and I am not part of them. The message was sent Wednesday. We have the first results with people who may have decoded the signal. So there is already some decoded version of the signal. What I mean by decoded is, basically, they removed the noise, and they kind of went through the content of the signal using references and so on.”
The ATA, GBT, and Medicina teams are also processing the signal, which is available to the public and can be downloaded via Filecoin. Participants are also encouraged to check out the A Sign in Space Discord server, where the first attempts to decode the signal are already uploaded. Computer scientist and spacecraft communications consultant Daniel Estévez, also a member of A Sign in Space, has provided instructions on how to decode the message on the project website.
Alas, decoding the mathematical language of the message is merely the first step. The next step, where things get particularly challenging (and fun!), consists of interpreting the message. As Marchis indicated, this is where the project’s objectives of creating a discussion and bringing people together can really be seen:
“It’s like getting from those radio waves’ recorded numbers and then understanding what those numbers mean. Specifically, understanding the content of the message, and we are still in that phase. But we’re making progress, and it’s challenging the community. Approximately three thousand people on Discord engaging in conversations in different languages, different groups working together, and different interpretations of the signal.”
But perhaps the greatest challenge for de Paulis and her colleagues was putting themselves in the position of the messenger. Considering how limited humanity’s frame of reference is (i.e., we know of exactly one civilization in the cosmos, ourselves!), it is incredibly difficult to imagine how extraterrestrial beings would look, let alone think and communicate. Said de Paulis:
“We have been thinking about sending messages to space for many decades. But perhaps looking the other way around is even more difficult because we have to consider many parameters. What if these extraterrestrials don’t have the same sensory systems we have? Or maybe they are an ancient civilization? Maybe they are already extinguished. All these possible ideas have to be pondered. It wasn’t just about what we will say, which somehow narrows down to mathematical language, and maybe music. It’s very interesting to be able to do this experiment. I found it extremely educational to try and imagine being an extraterrestrial.”
From May 26th to June 14th, 2023, the SETI Institute is hosting a series of one-hour workshops via Zoom. These will occur between 9:00 and 10:00 am PDT (12:00 to 01:00 pm EDT) and can be registered on the A Sign in Space website (tickets are going fast!) Each workshop will address SETI-related issues from a multicultural and multidisciplinary standpoint, examining the societal implications of detecting, decoding, and interpreting a signal from an advanced extraterrestrial civilization.
The first workshop, “Celestial Wayfindings,” took place on May 26th and was hosted by Willi Lempert – an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Bowdoin College who has worked extensively with communities and indigenous media organizations in the Kimberley region of Northwestern Australia. This one-hour segment focused on the perspectives of non-Western people and their perceptions of the celestial sphere. This included anthropologically-grounded aspects of Polynesia wayfinding, nomadic methods for spacial orientation, and how language influences what can be communicated.
Professor Lempert also addressed how extraterrestrials might perceive language and spatial mapping differently, with examples cited from speculative science fiction. Examples included Carl Sagan’s enduring classic Contact, Arrivals, and other stories that detail First Contact situations. As de Paulis explained, these discussions help illustrate the challenges of thinking outside our cultural and anthropological biases:
“It was about looking at space coordinates in a non-Cartesian way. So, how for example, for some populations, nomadic populations, space is not so much Cartesian. It is more shaped by winds or other things the landscape itself dictates. For example, the direction of their journey. And it is very different from how we, perhaps in the West, started using space and how we’ve developed it, especially in the last few centuries. So it was a way to imagine space from a different perspective and try to get people thinking a bit outside of the box.”
The second workshop, “Decoding and Signal Processing,” took place this morning (May 30th) and featured a decoding and signal-processing tutorial hosted by Estévez and ATA astronomer Wael Farah. Tomorrow, de Paulis will host the third workshop, “Signs in Space” tomorrow, which will consist of a brainstorming session about the possible meaning of the message. More workshops will be added as the decoding process continues. Stay up to date by consulting the workshop schedule.
This project is unique in being the first worldwide attempt to anticipate the thinking of alien messengers and enlist the public in decoding a signal. As to what humanity’s reaction will be if and when the real thing happens someday, de Paulis has some thoughts on that as well:
“I think there will be a very diverse range of reactions from people who, like myself, are passionate about space and science. I think we would perceive this as a transformative moment, as something exceptionally meaningful. And some people might be frightened. They might find that the idea of not being alone is actually frightening. Some people, I think, will not care at all. I think some people are genuinely not interested in the question of whether we are alone or not.
“And I think we will probably witness a variety of different impacts. I think we will probably see the worst and the best of people. But of course, it can also bring some the perception of a threat. What if the civilization is able to travel here? If they directed a signal toward us, they might be very peaceful. They might also have sent a signal for other reasons. So, I think all possible ranges of reactions could be on the table. But I think there will be two extremes for sure that we probably don’t see in all events.”
Herein lies another motivation behind the A Sign in Space campaign: to foster the kind of cooperation, preparation, and outside-the-box thinking needed before communications with an ETI can happen. For some, the possibility of finding evidence of intelligent life beyond Earth will happen before this century is over. Given the exponential rate at which we are studying the cosmos today, this is not a farfetched possibility. If this evidence happens to take the form of a signal, we had better be ready!
Further Reading: A Sign in Space