Tomorrow, Earthlings will get a dress rehearsal of what it may be like to receive a message from an extraterrestrial civilization. A message will be sent from the European Space Agency’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) on May 24 at 7 pm UTC (12 pm PDT). About 16 minutes later, it will be picked up by the people of Earth. But the message is not straightforward. It will need to be decoded and that’s where the general public comes in.
Three world-class radio observatories are ready to detect the message: 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 the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics. The project, A Sign In Space, will host and share the data.
The creator of this project is visionary artist Daniela de Paulis. She and her team are tight-lipped about the content of the message, which is a challenge for the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) community, and good practice for what we might experience one day if we get a message from another intelligent species.
“Throughout history, humanity has searched for meaning in powerful and transformative phenomena,” de Paulis explained. “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.”
The goal of the project is to understand how such detection would pan out, especially how the scientists and the public will go about decoding and interpreting the message. People that want to collaborate in decoding the message will have access to a dedicated Discord server and a portal for submission, whether for analysis of the data or artistic interpretations.
“This kind of experiment is long overdue. We have been searching for extraterrestrial signals for more than 60 years, but we never really thought about what receiving and decoding such a signal would be like," Franck Marchis, Senior Astronomer at the SETI Institute and Chief Science Officer at Unistellar, told IFLScience.
"The 'A Sign In Space' simulation is finally an opportunity to gather all the curious and diverse minds at the forefront of science and art, so that we will be ready if a signal reaches us one day."
Marchis has organized the outreach and the international collaboration and will co-present a live stream of Earth receiving the signal. Just like the real deal, this project will require global cooperation. It is not just about scientific expertise or space know-how, this is about Earth's societies, cultures, and competence across many fields working together in the face of something world-changing: we are not alone out there.