Could You Decode a Message From Aliens?

An artist is challenging researchers and amateurs alike to practice parsing an extraterrestrial communication

Green Bank Telescope
The Green Bank Telescope at the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia was one of three observatories to receive the transmission created by artist Daniela de Paulis. Erik Svensson / GBO via Flickr under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In late May, three radio astronomy observatories detected a strange signal coming from around Mars. The mysterious transmission seemed to be a message from intelligent life trying to contact Earth—as it was designed to be. 

The signal, though beamed from space, was of Earthly origin. It was the work of Daniela de Paulis, an artist and licensed radio operator who is the artist-in-residence at the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute and the Green Bank Observatory.

Called A Sign in Space, De Paulis’ project is an artistic test run of what it might be like for humans to receive—and attempt to decipher—an extraterrestrial message.

“This kind of experiment is long overdue,” Franck Marchis, a planetary astronomer at the SETI Institute in California who helped to coordinate the event, tells New Scientist’s Jonathan O’Callaghan. “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.”

To create the signal, de Paulis worked with an interdisciplinary group that included artists, astronomers, anthropologists and other scientists, she says to CNN’s Jacopo Prisco. 

“We were meeting on a monthly basis, brainstorming ideas on what a possible extraterrestrial civilization would send to us,” she explains. “After that, I narrowed the group down to five people, and then eventually down to three—because it was really important that not many people knew about the content.”

Finally, with the help of a computer scientist and an astronomer, de Paulis was ready to send the message. On May 24, the European Space Agency’s Trace Gas Orbiter beamed the encoded message to Earth, where it was received by astronomers with the Allen Telescope Array in northern California, the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia and the Medicina Radio Astronomical Station in Italy.

A Sign in Space

Since then, researchers and amateur codebreakers alike have been working to decipher the message de Paulis sent. The first step: separating the contents of the message from the electromagnetic radiation picked up by the telescope, leaving them with a file of binary data. “It’s basically a stream of ones and zeroes,” says Wael Farah, a radio astronomer who helped receive the message at the Allen Telescope Array, to Wired’s Ramin Skibba. “If you don’t know the format of the file, you pretty much can do nothing.”

One of those attempting to decipher the signal is Neill Sanders, part of the United Kingdom-based astronomy group Go Stargazing. “It’s fascinating,” he tells New Scientist. “It gives us a little sense of what would happen if we really did get a signal, everything from capturing the signal to processing the data.”

Next, with the data in hand, participants are trying to puzzle out the message’s meaning. Theories abound, with interpreters exploring “possible connections to chemistry, DNA structure and numerical systems,” according to an ongoing feed of updates. Anyone can find and join the interpretation discussion on the project’s Discord server.

So far, de Paulis is staying quiet about the content of the message. She’ll only start to release hints if people “really struggle” to decode the transmission, she tells CNN.

“It will take some time, because it requires people with different expertises to collaborate with each other, which was really the objective of the project,” she says. “An extraterrestrial message would belong to all humanity, so we should all have the ability to contribute to its interpretation.”

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