Want to extend your social media circle? How about extending it by 166 trillion kilometres? A new project called Lone Signal will help you out with that ambition, as they will soon begin broadcasting humanity's first continuous transmission into space specifically intended to contact an alien civilization.
Earth is a noisy planet. We've been broadcasting signals — starting with radio and then adding television — that have been escaping into space for around 100 years now. That could mean that aliens living out to around 100 light years away from us already know we're here (and they're either in the process of responding, they're on their way, or they're ignoring us). However, astronomers like Seth Shostak, of the SETI Institute, believe that the signals we've been broadcasting aren't strong enough to reach past five light years, so we'd only be heard by our closest neighbors — around Alpha Centauri A or B, or Proxima Centauri, if any planets are actually there and they have intelligent life.
There has been one concentrated signal we've sent, though. The Arecibo message was broadcast in November of 1974, lasting for just shy of three minutes, and it was aimed at a collection of stars 25 thousand light years away from us. Any alien civilization living in that collection of stars will be able to pick up the signal in 25 thousand years, if they happen to be listening during that three minute window. So, if someone happens to forget to turn on the recorder when they go for a coffee break (if they have coffee), they'll miss it.
Lone Signal has their sights aimed a little bit closer, and they'll be transmitting a lot longer.
Starting on Monday, June 17th, they will begin broadcasting a continuous signal from the Jamesburg Earth Station in central California, aim at a red dwarf star in the constellation Boötes named Gliese 526 (or Wolf 498, or Lalande 25372, or about 7 others, depending on who you ask), that's roughly 17 light years away from us.
No planets have been discovered in the system yet, since Kepler doesn't look in that direction, and it doesn't seem like anyone else has tried looking there yet. However, it is apparently listed in the Catalog of Nearby Habitable Systems, so it seems that the the star is at least the right type so that if there are any planets in the system, they could have the potential to harbour life.
In order to keep this signal going continuously, Lone Signal wants the public to help. Anyone can send one text message for free, and then purchase 'credits' to send any further messages after that. 99 cents will buy you four credits, with any text messages after the first costing one credit, and it will cost you three credits to send a picture.
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Now, any messages you choose to send won't be received at their destination for nearly 18 years, so this won't be setting up any kind of two-way communication with aliens that might be there.
"There really is a time capsule argument," said Jacob Haqq-Misra, Lone Signal's chief science officer. "Even if you're not communicating with a 'watcher' now, you're putting this time capsule out into space for all of time."
(Image courtesy: D. Aguilar/Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics)
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