If you want to make sure your extra-terrestrial efforts can survive a nuclear attack, working inside the Jamesburg Earth Station on, fittingly, ComSat Road, just outside Carmel, California, is a fine choice. A short drive to Pebble Beach and Spyglass golf courses means it is not a bad way to spend your weekends either.
If you enjoyed seeing Neil Armstrong walking on the Moon, Jamesburg is one of the dishes you can thank. But the 10-story high antenna went out of service in 2002. The land was sold to a gentleman who wanted a vacation home - the coolest Cold War vacation home ever, if you ask me, with blueprints and cinder block walls and a room the size of a football field.
This year, Jamesburg is getting new life. But instead of sending phone signals to other countries, like it did in its latter days, the folks at Lone Signal want to send signals into space. Instead of listening for ET, like SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), or waiting for ET, like the wonderfully humorous WETI (Wait For Extraterrestrial Intelligence - success to-date is 100%, they note) the METI movement is proactively messaging the universe.
And they want citizen scientists and the general public to help.
METI is not new. In 1974, a group including Carl Sagan and Dr. Frank Drake (of the Drake equation) sent the first real message into space using the Arecibo radio telescope. But M13, the globular star cluster they aimed at, is 25,000 light years away. Assuming no noise degradation and that someone there gets it all, it is a 50,000 year experiment. But it was a clever, optimistic idea. More recently astronomers have found lots of systems with potentially habitable planets (since life like ours would have to be on a "just right" planet similar to Earth - not too hot, not too cold - they are called "Goldilocks" zones by astronomers) so multiple efforts have been made to send messages since then. In 2029, the first such message to arrive will reach the red dwarf star system Gliese 581 in the constellation Libra.(1)
But those were still one-offs. Lone Signal is going to start firing off messages on a recurring basis and its first target is Gliese 526 in the constellation Boötes, just under 18 light years from us. And they are going to let the public decide what those messages are, no prime numbers or atomic elements dictated by committees. It can be pictures of your cat, though if you just sign up you can only send one short text message - all the electricity to fire up a 97 foot dish and transmit into space doesn't come cheap - and more elaborate stuff is only available if you contribute money to the cause. After it's sent, you can monitor how far it has gone and discuss with other people in the Lone Signal community.
Jamesburg dish. Courtesy: Lone Signal
Intriguing to me, the CEO of Lone Signal is not a scientist, he is instead one of the co-founders of Rockstar Games, the folks behind things like Grand Theft Auto. I'm always interested in outsiders changing the way things are done, I am obviously an outsider in science too, so someone doing an end-run around NASA and SETI in the post-Space-Shuttle world of space privatization gets my attention. And I had to wonder if it got theirs also.
So I got on the phone with Lone Signal head geek Jamie King to talk about what he hopes to accomplish and discuss if maybe he was going to seal our doom.
Science 2.0: This has been a debate for 40 years, ever since the first Arecibo message, and scientists in the space field are somewhat divided over METI. As astrophysicist and award-winning science fiction author David Brin notes, if we are relative children in the universe, perhaps we should listen quietly rather than start talking right away.
What made you decide to personally get involved and 'leap frog' the discussions space scientists have been engaged in?
Jamie King: I have always loved space and I was heavily influenced as a young boy by a comic series called 2000 AD (2) that ran in Great Britain. I think it's an inevitable journey that human beings will spread out into space, and I would love to be part of that. I don't think it's going to happen in my lifetime but I think this is an opportunity for me to come close to that.
I also think there is a great movement happening in the privatization of space and space exploration and I think this is the first opportunity for the public to have some say in how we want to be perceived out there. We're all one race now, part of what has increasingly become a very small global village and I think the opportunity to bring everyone together and give them a forum, where everyone with an Internet connection can participate, is what the Lone Signal experiment is all about. And I also think talking or debating about how we are seen in the universe will lead us to greater recognition of the traits we all share.
Science 2.0: SETI has been listening for decades with no result and people want to live in important times. Is there any concern about frustration leading to carelessness?
Jamie King: No one wants to make a rash decision but we are talking about radio technology, we have been using it for a hundred years. We have radio background emitting from here whether Lone Signal exists or not. If an extra-terrestrial intelligence were to receive our signal they would understand first principles and physics just like we do, but they are far away and would have some daunting challenges in traveling that distance quickly. They would instead have to write back. So this is a sort of hands-off way of getting an initial contact.
Science 2.0: Has SETI been supportive of this?
Jamie King: They're aware of our project and that we are using some of their research (the HabCat) but members and the public we have talked to are very excited about what we are doing. A very healthy debate drives us forward and there is some controversy about this, but we want to hear the pros and cons.
Science 2.0: The Jamesburg dish is rather famous and the listing price to buy the land was expensive, around $2 million. Did you buy this?
Jamie King: No, we have leased it. We fell in love with it. When we go there we are like giddy school boys so we have a 30-year annual rolling lease on the dish and the access to it is vacant. If we had to buy the land, we couldn't have done it. We are bootstrapped, we don't have big funding, we have one angel investor and then we all are sweat equity and working very hard because we believe in what we are doing.
It's very costly, we are bringing a modern social media and communications infrastructure to 1960s hardware. But we are thrilled to have access to it.
Science 2.0: If you have an angel investor, is that a limitation? Isn't it three grand every time you turn this thing on? I imagine you can see the lights in Carmel dim when this powers up.
Jamie King: It's not cheap and we have been very, very fortunate with our angel investor, who is very patient and very generous, but this project has definitely taken us to the breaking point on many occasions. Crowdsourcing may be a part of this and if we thought we fit the Kickstarter model we would do it, but first we have focused on getting the science and technology right. We wanted our methodology to be as sound as possible and then we are integrating this front end so we can think about how people want to connect to space.
Science 2.0: Have you bounced your voice off the moon? I would have thought that would be the first thing a space enthusiast would do.
Jamie King: We have turned it on, we have tested it and the components but we have not transmitted to any target yet. It's important to us that a transmission be the final stage. If we can find a way to fit a moon bounce in, we will.
How much of a hand did you have in developing the user experience?
I've had a hand but when I came along the guys at Lone Signal had a good amount of the design done. Now it is all about the interface and how you move around the website. My expertise was, I brought the development in-house and I brought in our CTO and I am concerned more about the functionality rather than what people see. More boring stuff.
Like any good startup and any good software development, you start off with tons of features and then you become very, very strict and cut it in half and then cut it in half again. And that's where you make a final product.
We're going to make a big splash, we're going to go live with it and the only real way to find out what people think about it is to let them have access to it. It's kind of scary but we're not going to get it right the first time. We are going to foster a dialogue around how we should be sending these messages out. It's part of our destiny.
Science 2.0: Is this a social community evolving around this science idea or is it a science effort precipitated by a lot of users?
Jamie King: This is absolutely a social community for everyone interested in this science. Part of what we want to do is encourage future scientists and also understanding and conversation about what NASA is doing and about what the private sector are doing, and so this is definitely a social network/community. We want to be mindful of the science, we are respectful about what we do. We are all junior scientists and a lot of this is mesmerizing and complicated but people want to participate in it and we want to make that possible.
Are we doing galactic science outreach or asking for a fight?
Our audience is a little more open to this sort of thing than more conservative science would be - bring on "Farscape", bring on "Mass Effect"(3) - but obviously that is because there is not a great deal of real worry about consequences. To most of us, alien life is too remote. There is the precautionary principle and reasonable concern and then there is being trapped in your house, paralyzed by things that can possibly go wrong. If it takes us 6 months to get to Mars, it is hundreds of years to get to any place that might have life. Factoring out supernatural kinds of science that make light speed (or close to it) travel possible, any hostile civilization would obey the same laws of nature we must obey so we are not getting invaded unless they sent the ships 400 years ago or more; in which case sending radio messages today isn't changing anything.
More likely, first contact, should it occur, would be a long-distance pen pal. And that's if there is no signal degradation over the next 18 years and anyone gets it. It's a big issue and I don't see how there can be a right answer. Humankind has always been about breaking the laws. Where other creatures and organisms react to nature, we engineer it. In this case, Lone Signal members are engineering a way for the public to determine how we are presented to the universe. I think it's a fun idea, at least.
Lone Signal launches at 6 PM Pacific time on June 17th. If they do cause the First Contact War, who do you want on your side, Miranda or Ashley?
David Brin: METI: Should We Be Shouting At The Cosmos?
Jacob Haqq-Misra, Michael Busch, Sanjoy Som, Seth Baum, 'The Benefits and Harms of Transmitting Into Space', arXiv:1207.5540
(1) Not as easy as you might think. Measuring gravitational wobble this way is not without error and the Paris Observatory that keeps the list of exoplanets has hundreds of controversial/retracted ones so 'habitable zone' ones are even more contentious.
(2) Judge Dredd!
(3) No surprise that Claudia Black was in both, but she was not Miranda in the "Mass Effect" series - she instead voiced one of the supporting characters in a quest. She was, however, the very important Morrigan in the sword-and-sorcery sibling to "Mass Effect", called "Dragon Age". She was also in the "Uncharted" series, which is one of the greatest adventure games of all time so where she goes, gaming magic follows. Yvonne Strahovski voiced Miranda in "Mass Effect" but they're both Australian and they gave Miranda Claudia Black's hair, so the confusion is understandable.
Why do so many American media producers think space-traveling women will be Australian? Well, my guess is that Australian women know how to deal with Australian men, so they are pretty tough and space would be a cake walk after that, but really it is a mystery of neuroscience.
Lone Signal: METI Teams Up With Citizen Science To Try And Make First Contact