Article image

When aliens call, how will Earth respond? New project aims to find out

Daniela de Paulis, an acclaimed interdisciplinary artist and licensed radio operator, poses an intriguing question: what if we received a message from an alien civilization? Currently, de Paulis is the artist in residence at both the SETI Institute and the Green Bank Observatory. 

To explore this question, she has gathered an international team of specialists ranging from SETI researchers and space scientists to artists for her newest endeavor, A Sign in Space.

A Sign in Space is a groundbreaking global theatre project that will simulate the process of receiving, decoding, and interpreting an alien message. The project emphasizes the importance of worldwide cooperation, drawing on expertise from many areas to facilitate a discussion around SETI, space research, and society that transcends cultures.

Bringing the world together for first alien contact

“Throughout history, humanity has searched for meaning in powerful and transformative phenomena. Receiving a message from an extraterrestrial civilization would be a profoundly transformational experience for all humankind,” said de Paulis.

“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.”

As part of this grand experiment, the European Space Agency’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), currently orbiting Mars, will transmit an encoded message to Earth on May 24, 2023. This will simulate the experience of receiving a signal from an alien civilization. 

The exact content of this encoded message, crafted by de Paulis and her team, remains a secret to the public, allowing them to take part in the decryption and interpretation process.

The when, where, and how of this experiment

Three renowned radio astronomy observatories stationed globally will receive this message. These include the Allen Telescope Array (ATA) at the SETI Institute, the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT) at the Green Bank Observatory, and the Medicina Radio Astronomical Station observatory managed by the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF).

On May 24 at 19:00 UTC / 12:00 pm PDT, the encoded message will begin its journey from the ExoMars Orbiter towards Earth, taking 16 minutes to arrive. To involve the public in this historic event, the SETI Institute will host a live stream on social media featuring interviews with key team members, including scientists, engineers, artists, and more, streaming live from around the globe, including the control rooms of ATA, GBT, and Medicina.

Dr. Wael Farah, ATA project scientist, emphasized the importance of this experiment. “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. More than astronomy, communicating with ET will require a breadth of knowledge. With ‘A Sign in Space,’ we hope to make the initial steps towards bringing a community together to meet this challenge.”

Next step after message is received

Once the observatories receive the signal, they will process it and then make it available for public decoding. The processed data will be securely stored by the SETI Institute in collaboration with the Breakthrough Listen Open Data Archive and Filecoin, the world’s largest decentralized storage network. This safeguards the data’s preservation and accessibility for further analysis and decoding efforts.

Stefaan Verveat, head of Network Growth at Protocol Labs, the company behind Filecoin, is enthusiastic about the partnership. “We’re thrilled to partner with SETI on this groundbreaking project. Our decentralized data storage solutions are ideally suited for the secure and reliable storage of the vast amounts of data generated by this project.”

People working to decode and interpret the message can join the conversation on the A Sign in Space Discord server. They can also submit their findings, insights, and artistic and scientific contributions through a submission form available on the project’s website.

Series of public discussions scheduled

In the weeks following the transmission, the A Sign in Space team plans to host a series of public discussions via Zoom. These discussions will delve into the societal implications of detecting a signal from an alien civilization. These conversations are set to take place over a period of 6-8 weeks post-transmission.

With the ambitious A Sign in Space project, Daniela de Paulis and her team are not only pushing the boundaries of art and science, but also encouraging us to reimagine our place in the universe and how we might one day communicate with alien civilizations. 

By fostering a spirit of global collaboration and open-minded inquiry, the project aims to prepare us for a potentially profound transformative experience: receiving a message from an extraterrestrial intelligence.

The public is warmly invited to join this journey into the unknown. More details about the project, along with a schedule of upcoming events and links for registration, can be found on the A Sign in Space website. Whether you’re a scientist, artist, or simply a curious individual, your insights and perspectives are most welcome in this extraordinary endeavor to explore the cosmic unknown.

More about humanity’s search for extraterrestrial life

The search for extraterrestrial life, often abbreviated as SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), is a fascinating area of scientific inquiry that aims to answer one of humanity’s oldest questions: Are we alone in the universe?

The search for extraterrestrial life spans multiple scientific disciplines, including astronomy, biology, and even anthropology. It is guided by the principles of astrobiology, which is the study of the origin, evolution, and future of life in the universe.

There are several key methodologies used in the search for extraterrestrial life:

Radio and Optical SETI 

This is perhaps the most well-known aspect of the search for alien life. Scientists use radio and optical telescopes to search for signals that could potentially be of artificial, non-human origin. The idea is based on the assumption that any advanced civilization would eventually develop technology that could broadcast their presence, intentionally or not, through radio or light waves.

Astrobiology and the Search for Biosignatures 

Not all searches for alien life look for advanced civilizations. Astrobiology, for instance, primarily looks for “biosignatures” — evidence of life, not necessarily intelligent — on other planets and moons. These biosignatures can be chemical (such as the presence of certain gases like oxygen in a planet’s atmosphere) or physical (such as the presence of liquid water, thought to be necessary for life as we know it).

Exoplanet Research 

This is closely linked with the search for biosignatures. Thanks to advancements in technology, astronomers have detected thousands of exoplanets — planets outside our solar system — many of which are in the habitable zone of their star, where conditions might be just right for liquid water and, potentially, life.

Interstellar Messaging 

Some efforts have been made to send messages to potential extraterrestrial civilizations. The most famous of these is probably the Arecibo message, a binary-encoded message broadcast into space in 1974 that included basic information about humanity and Earth.

It’s important to note that no definitive evidence of extraterrestrial life has been found. The search for alien life is a long-term scientific endeavor, one that could take centuries or more. 

However, discoveries like the abundance of potentially habitable exoplanets and tantalizing but inconclusive hints of life on planets like Mars mean that the search for extraterrestrial life remains a vibrant and exciting field of research.


Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day