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ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter illustration
ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter illustrationCourtesy of ESA

Scientists are trying to crack an ‘alien’ signal from Mars

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Receiving a message from sentient beings beyond Earth’s atmosphere would be a groundbreaking moment in human history, and a dream scenario for seekers of extraterrestrial life. Cue: a flurry of excitement at 4pm on May 24, when three major telescopes picked up an alien signal from Mars’ orbit. Was this the moment they’d been waiting for? Was the dream coming true? Were we about to have our first encounter with little green men?

Well... not exactly. In actual fact, the signal was sent by a team of scientists at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute. The aim? To test whether we’re prepared to receive and decode messages from intelligent alien beings if they do come through in the future.

Beamed back to Earth from the European Space Agency’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter – a probe orbiting Mars since its launch in 2016 – the encoded message was received sixteen minutes later, by three large radio astronomy observatories on Earth, including the SETI Institute’s own Allen Telescope Array (ATA). Researchers at each facility were then tasked with descrambling the signal, and making it available to other scientists across the globe, as well as the public. Anyone and everyone, from any background, is invited to have a go at deciphering the message, in a project dubbed A Sign in Space.

“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,” says ATA Project Scientist Dr Wael Farah, in a statement. “More than astronomy, communicating with ET will require a breadth of knowledge. With A Sign in Space, we hope to make the initial steps towards bringing a community together to meet this challenge.”

Daniela de Paulis, the current artist in residence at the SETI Institute and the brain behind the weeks-long project, adds: "Throughout history, humanity has searched for meaning in powerful and transformative phenomena. Receiving a message from an extraterrestrial civilization would be a profoundly transformational experience for all humankind.” Of course, that only matters if we can actually understand what the message means, which is the whole point of the A Sign in Space project: “[It] 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.”

How likely is it that we’ll actually make contact with intelligent extraterrestrial beings in our lifetime? Well, scientists recently announced that aliens could intercept our signals sooner than previously expected, though it’s unclear how long it might take them to respond. NASA, meanwhile, is engaged in a more focused hunt for planets that could bear alien life, while some experts have theorised that aliens could have visited Earth already.

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