A couple of weeks ago, 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. However, 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, told New Scientist. “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.”
On 24 May, the European Space Agency’s Trace Gas Orbiter beamed the encoded message to Earth, where it was received by astronomers at observatories in California, West Virginia and Italy.
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.
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. Want to join in? Anyone can find and join the interpretation discussion on the project’s Discord server.