Lone Signal: Some Say Calling The Stars Is A Bad Idea

Jamesburg Earth Station
Jamesburg Earth Station

So listening to potential ET transmissions isn’t enough for some people, some believe that we need to be advertising our existence to the cosmos on the regular.

In the grand tradition of the SETI project and its early offshoot CETI (Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence), which sent the first deliberate radio transmission into space in 1974, with the aim of attracting a little intergalactic attention (The Arecibo Message), the Lone Signal project, working through METI (Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence, which is a subgroup of the current Active SETI program) is about to crowd the airways with radio transmissions intended to reach anyone who may be listening.  And some are not very happy about it.

Scheduled to come online June 17th of this year, the Lone Signal project is an attempt by a group of scientists, businessmen and entrepreneurs to send a continuous radio signal into space from the Jamesburg Earth Station radio dish in Carmel, California.  The team, headed by Dr. Jacob Haqq-Misra, have targeted a star system known as Gliese 526, long believed to be a good candidate for extraterrestrial intelligence, and are planning to send a signal composed of, believe it or not, messages from the internet.

“Our scientific goals are to discover sentient beings outside of our solar system,” said Lone Star co-founder Pierre Fabre at a recent press event on June 11. “But an important part of this project is to get people to look beyond themselves and their differences by thinking about what they would say to a different civilization. Lone Signal will allow people to do that.”

The Lone Signal project logo

So their goals are laudable and rooted in gaining a deeper understanding of not only the universe at large, but also of ourselves.  As mentioned, this isn’t the first signal to be sent to the stars.  The Arecibo Message, composed by Carl Sagan and Frank Drake, was directed at globular cluster M13, and though it was highly publicised at the time, it held little potential for actually contacting a distant civilization, as M13 wouldn’t even be in the same position when the signal arrived some 25,000 years later, and they sent only a single radio burst.

Lone Signal, however, is another story entirely.  They’re planning to send a continuous stream of radio messages over a period of years.  More specifically, they’re planning to send two intertwined signals.

Lone Signal will be sending two signals: one is a continuous wave (CW) signal, a hailing message that sends a slow binary broadcast to provide basic information about Earth and our Solar System using an encoding system created by astrophysicist and planetary scientist Michael W. Busch. The binary code is based on mathematical “first principles” which reflect established laws that, theoretically, are relatively constant throughout the universe; things like gravity and the structure of the hydrogen atom, etc.

“This hailing message is a language we think could be used to instigate communication,” said Haqq-Misra, “and is the most advanced binary coding currently in use.”

The second signal, embedded in the first signal, will be messages from the people of Earth.[1]

Gliese 526 is a system that lies 17.6 light-years from Earth and the signal will be aimed so that it arrives where Gliese 526 will be in 17.6 years.  There are no known planets in this system, but the Lone Signal team believes that it likely does have planets, as Kepler and the like are finding that most stars have planets in orbit around them.

You might think this a completely scientific endeavour, but Lone Signal does have a commercial side to it.  Through the Lone Signal website internet users can purchase space in the signal to send a personal message to the stars.  The first message is free but limited in size, so the purchased messages offer more opportunity to regale ET from your laptop or phone.  In this way the project is sort of crowdsourced, funded by the public, though it also receives funding from both private business and government sources.

David Brin
David Brin

Despite the apparent nature of the project, seeking to define and explore humanity and the galaxy, there are some people who warn of potential disaster. American scientist and science fiction author David Brin PhD is among the loudest critics of Haqq-Misra and his colleagues.  He claims that the Lone Signal project and others like it are premature and don’t take into account the potential risks to humanity and the planet.

Brin doesn’t proclaim any specific repercussions but calls for “wider discussion, beyond the insular community of SETI fans and a few dozen radio astronomers, of a matter that could have great bearing on the success — and even survival — of our descendants.”[2]

Haqq-Misra and his colleagues responded to the critics in a paper published in the journal ScienceDirect attempting to lay these concerns to rest.  They point out that these directed signals are virtually drowned out by the steady bubble of radio transmission that already permeates the space around our solar system.  Those transmissions have been unintentionally sent into space since the 1940’s (interesting enough, Hitler’s televised propaganda speeches of World War II were the first broadcasts powerful enough to be detected).  Today, military and astronomical radar transmissions are orders of magnitude more powerful than that proposed by the Lone Signal project.[3]

alien-invasionSecondly, the fact remains that the repercussions of initiating contact with extraterrestrial civilizations is entirely unknown, and Maqq-Misra et al claim this is no reason to hold back progress.  But Brin and other critics are quick to point out that little discussion on the topic has taken place outside of the small circles of SETI and similar programs, and thus the topic begs to be explored before the Lone Signal project leaps without looking.

The discussion highlights one of the failings of such a program, and that is the extremely limited chances of success that Lone Signal and other programs like it will have.  Targeting a single star system based on at best an educated guess about who or what might be there isn’t exactly efficient.  Especially since our unintentional sphere of transmission when compared to the transient nature of the project, completely overshadows its capabilities.

Critics see the Lone Signal project as scientific grandstanding and a pointless publicity stunt, and the crowdsourced nature of the messages suggests a financial motive for proceeding (though it’s hard to imagine such efforts offsetting the cost of operating the JES radio dish on a continual basis).

Whether we agree with the Lone Signal team or not, they are going forward with their plan and in the coming months you will be able to send your most intimate thoughts into the stars, for a small fee of course.  For more information on the project and details about purchasing message space, visit the Lone Signal website.

[1] Atkinson, Nancy. Lone Signal: First Continous Message Beacon to Find and Say Hello to an Extraterrestrial Civilization. UniverseToday.com http://www.universetoday.com/102844/lone-signal-first-continous-message-beacon-to-find-and-say-hello-to-an-extraterrestrial-civilization/#ixzz2W7zf8JGE

[2] Dvorskey, George. New Project to Message Aliens is Both Useless and Potentially Reckless. Io9.com http://io9.com/new-project-to-message-aliens-is-both-useless-and-poten-512863567

[3] Jacob Haqq-Misra, Michael W. Busch, Sanjoy M. Som, Seth D. Baum, The benefits and harm of transmitting into space, Space Policy, Volume 29, Issue 1, February 2013, Pages 40-48, ISSN 0265-9646, 10.1016/j.spacepol.2012.11.006. (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0265964612001361)

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