Cosmic language, Part 2: Welcome, GJ273b

Original author: Paul Patton
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The Rampfjordman installation of the European Incoherent Scatter Association (EISCAT), located near Tromso in Norway. The installation includes several radio telescopes used to study the interaction of the Sun with the ionosphere and the Earth’s magnetosphere. On the left - a round parabolic antenna with a diameter of 32 m, which was used to transmit the message in the direction of the star Leytena

Symposium "Language in Space"

In October 2017, researchers three times deployed a powerful radar telescope, located near the city of Tromsø in Norway, in the direction of a dim, invisible to the eye of a star in the constellation Maly Pes , and sent a coded message into space, trying to give a signal to an alien civilization. This new attempt to find another intelligent life in the Universe was discussed at a presentation held at the Language in Space Symposium on May 26 in Los Angeles.

The symposium was sponsored by METI International. This organization was founded to advance the project of signaling to extraterrestrial sentient beings as a new approach to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, SETI. It supports other aspects of SETI and astrobiology research. The symposium was part of an international space development conference, sponsored by the National Space Society.

This is the second article on the symposium ( first part ). It will describe the presentation made by the president of METI International, Dr. Douglas Vachem . He talked about a project that hadn’t been paid much attention to before: the first attempt to send a message to a nearby, potentially habitable exoplanet GJ273b. Vakoch led the team of scientists who created the training part of the message.

Letter to the stars

Modern search for extraterrestrial intelligence began in 1960. That's when astronomer Frank Drake used a radio telescope in West Virginia to listen to signals from two nearby stars. Astronomers from time to time, as far as financial possibilities were, made more and more complicated searches. Today, the largest such project is Breakthrough Listen , funded by billionaire Yuri Milner. Searches for radio signals and laser beams were conducted. Researchers were also looking for megastructure, which advanced civilizations could build near their stars. METI International promotes a completely new approach, according to which messages need to be transmitted in the direction of nearby stars, hoping to get an answer.

The project of sending a message to the GJ273b was a joint project for scientists and artists. It was initiated by the organizers of the Sónar music, art and technology festival . This festival has been held annually since 1994 in Barcelona, ​​Spain. The organizers decided to celebrate its 25th anniversary. To implement the project, the organizers asked for help from the Catalan Space Research Institute ( IEEC ) and METI International.

To transmit the message, the team turned to EISCAT , the European Scientific Association for Incoherent Scattering , which operates a network of radio and radar telescopes in Finland, Norway and Sweden. The network is mainly used to study the interaction of the Sun with the ionosphere and the Earth’s magnetic field, from points located beyond the Arctic Circle. The message was transmitted from a 32-meter high aerial antenna with a Ramfjordmen telescope located near Tromso in Norway, with a peak power of 2 MW. This is the first interstellar message sent toward an open, potentially habitable exoplanet.

Target system

The dim star, known from catalog number GJ273 , attracted the attention of the Dutch-American astronomer Willem Leyten in 1935. Leyten investigated the motion of a star. This star attracted him because it moved across the sky at an amazing speed of 3.7 seconds of arc . Later studies have shown that the reason for such a high apparent speed is that the star GJ273 is one of the closest neighbors of the Sun, and is only 12.4 light years away. This is the 24th star on the list closest to the Sun. Because of this discovery, Leuthen is sometimes called the Leuthen star .

The star of Leuthen is a dim red dwarf, weighing a quarter of the sun. She again attracted the attention of astronomers in March 2017. It was then that an exoplanet was discovered in her habitable zone.GJ273b . The habitable zone is the interval of distances from a star, being inside of which a planet with an atmosphere similar to that of the Earth can theoretically have liquid water on its surface. The discovered planet is a super-earth, its mass is 2.89 times the mass of our planet. Its orbit is at a distance of 1.3 million km from its dim sun, and it makes a complete revolution in 18 Earth days.

Artistic image of a habitable exoplanet in orbit around a red dwarf. The habitability of red dwarf planets is only hypothetical.

This exoplanet was chosen because of its proximity to the Earth, and also because it is visible from the northern hemisphere, where the transmitter is located. Since GJ273b is located relatively close, and messages on radio waves travel at the speed of light, the answer from aliens may come to us already in the middle of this century.


Comparison with Voyagers

Transmission for GJ273b is not the first time that a message for aliens was sent into space. Perhaps the most famous interstellar message is what was sent on board the Voyager, 1 and 2 spacecraft. NASA launched these interplanetary robots in 1977. They followed the trajectories that threw them into the interstellar space upon completion of the study of the Solar System.

Messages carried by Voyager are digitally encoded on a phonographic plate. These are mainly images that try to give a general overview of humanity and the Earth. Also there is recorded some music from different terrestrial cultures. It will take tens of thousands of years for these starships to reach the stars. Therefore, a reasonable time frame to respond to these messages should not be expected.

In a sense, the message for the GJ273b is very different from the messages from the Voyagers. Unlike the Voyager record, it is not graphic, and does not attempt to give a comprehensive description of people and the Earth. Perhaps because, unlike the Voyager message, it is intended to start a dialogue within decades. And it reminds messages from Voyager that contains music from the Earth, namely, the music of artists performing at a music festival.


For a person to understand this message will be a little more difficult than when looking at the pictures on the record from Voyager. You can try to decipher the message yourself, because the organizers placed it on their website . Further in the text there will be spoilers for this post (or useful tips - depending on the point of view).

A message consists of a string containing binary digits — zeros and ones. In the signal, they are denoted by shifts between two slightly different frequencies. The welcome section is designed so as to attract the attention of listening to aliens. It consists of a sequence of prime numbers (those that are divisible only by one and themselves). They are represented in binary form like this:


In this form, the message continues to the number 193. Such a signal can almost certainly not be generated by natural processes, and can only be a specially prepared message from creatures that know mathematics.

Training part

After the welcome part there is a tutorial. From there, to the end of the message, eight-bit blocks of binary digits are used, which serve as the basis for characters. The training part begins with the input of characters for numbers, for the implementation of the account. Binary numbers are used as follows: The leading unit allows you to distinguish numbers from other eight-bit characters that do not denote numbers. After the counting, the training part enters symbols for arithmetic operations, introducing examples of problems. Here are some of the symbols for mathematical operations:

10000000 (0) 10000001 (1) 10000010 (2) 10000011 (3)
10000100 (4) 10000101 (5) 10000110 (6) 10000111 (7)
10001000 (8) 10001001 (9) 10001010 (10)

00000110 (+) 00000111 (-) 00001000 (×) 00001001 (÷)
00111100 (=)

Then the learning part goes to geometry using combinations of numbers and symbols to illustrate the Pythagorean theorem. Then it goes to the sine plot, describing the radio wave carrying the signal. Finally, the teaching part describes the physics of sound waves and the relationship between musical notes.

In addition to numbers, only 55 eight-bit characters are entered in the training part. It contains instructions on how aliens correctly reproduce the encoded musical part from the Sónar festival.

During his trip on a path of 110 million km, the message is bound to be spoiled by noise. To compensate, the message was transmitted three times at each transmission, which required a total of 33 minutes per session. The entire message was repeated for three days, October 16, 17, and 18, 2017. The second block of three programs took place on May 14, 15 and 16, 2018.


Each program included its own selection of music; In total, 38 works of various musicians were transferred. All recordings can be heard on the Sónar Calling GJ273b website .

Explain the purpose of the message

The current and previous SETI projects, which astronomers of the Earth have worked on, were carried out under the assumption that advanced aliens should facilitate the work of new civilizations by installing powerful beacons constantly transmitting messages in all directions. Therefore, when searching for SETI, the same parabolic antennas were commonly used, which are often used for radio astronomy research purposes. They listen to each star for several minutes, turning the stars one after another in search of a lighthouse.

Unlike the permanently operating beacons, which SETI project participants imagine, the Sónar message was transmitted only 33 minutes on each of the three selected days, and only two times. Vakoch admits that “our message is likely to pass unnoticed by the civilization that exists on GJ273b and uses the same strategy” that the researchers from the SETI project on Earth use.

However, some researchers have questioned the traditional assumptions and strategies of SETI, and are already conducting research on alternative search technologies. Vakoch points out that “we humans already have the necessary technological capabilities to observe the entire sky, as a result of which we could detect such intermittent messages as ours; the question remains only for financing. ”

A more serious problem is that the message was sent to only one planet. Although GJ273b is located in the habitable zone of a star, in fact, we know very little about what it says about the real habitability of the planet, as well as about the presence of life or mind on it. The earth has been inhabited for billions of years. But a civilization capable of transmitting messages by radio has existed on it for only a hundred years.

Vakoch admits that “we will have the only opportunity to get an answer from GJ273b if the galaxy is full of intelligent life, and waits for us to take the initiative. It would be more realistic to engage in the reproduction of this process with each of the hundreds, thousands or even millions of stars, until we find the one closest to which there is an advanced civilization capable of detecting our signal. ” METI International hopes to conduct a study on this large-scale project, hoping that it will receive funding from government or other sources.

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