ESA Simulates First Contact: What Would Happen if We Received a Message From Space?

24th May 2023
ESA Simulates First Contact: What Would Happen if We Received a Message From Space?

The European Space Agency will use its ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter to transmit an encoded message to Earth on 24th May. The goal of the exercise is to simulate a signal received from another civilisation. Exoars will help ESA simulate a first contact. The project is part of A Sign in Space by Daniela de Paulis, who is the current Artist in Residence at the SETI Institute and the Green Bank Observatory. 

A warm and fuzzy First Contact

The goal is not to cause mass panic or fuel conspiracy theories. Rather, it is a case of engaging the SETI community and the public, as well as professionals in different fields and disciplines.

“Throughout history, humanity has searched for meaning in powerful and transformative phenomena,” explained de Paulis. “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 message will be detected by the Allen Telescope Array, Green Bank Telescope, and the Medicina Radio Astronomical Station observatory managed by Italian National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF). What is in the message itself is a total mystery. The idea is that the contents will cause debate and a chance for analysis and debate.

ATA Project Scientist Dr. Wael Farah spoke more about the goal of the project: “This experiment is an opportunity for the world to learn how the SETI community, in all its diversity, will work together to receive, process, analyse, and understand the meaning of a potential extraterrestrial signal.

 Public outreach

As well as a social media stream when the event takes place on 24th May, the simulated first contact signal will be processed and then broadcast to the public to decode and debate. Files will be stored with Breakthrough Listen Open Data Archive and Filecoin, a decentralised storage network, meaning that the data is safeguarded for future analysis.

This is a project anyone can get involved in which is expected to have ripples for months after the event. There is a Discord server as well as a chance to discuss and share breakthroughs on the decoding via the project’s website.

The next steps also include a series of Zoom debates and discussions which have already been scheduled. Details can be found here.

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