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Earth's Sloppy Message to the Universe

20 May 1999 7:00 pm
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Don't beam it up, Scotty. The green symbols are the ones used throughout the message to represent the equals sign, but on two occasions, the authors accidentally used another symbol, seen here in red.

What is 370,967 data bits long, might be read by aliens, and contains two typos? It's an interstellar radio message, slated to be beamed to the stars Monday by a radio dish in Ukraine. The errors were not inserted as a cosmic intelligence test; they're the result of sloppy work that the authors say can't be corrected before the broadcast.

The cosmic call is only the second intentional interstellar broadcast ever made; U.S. radio astronomer Frank Drake sent the first one in 1974. Organizing the latest alien outreach is Charles Chafer, director of the Encounter 2001 project and head of Celestis Inc., a company that puts people's ashes into orbit in a kind of "space funeral." Encounter 2001 is a private venture with the ultimate aim of launching an interstellar space probe with human DNA on board in the year 2001.

Chafer was approached last year by astronomers Yvan Dutil and Stéphane Dumas of the Defence Research Establishment Valcartier in Canada with the idea of broadcasting a scientific message before launching the space probe. After Chafer approved the plan, the duo spent months on the problem of designing and testing a message. They compiled 23 pages of information on the solar system, life on Earth, mathematics, and physics, all coded in symbols that intelligent aliens should be able to decipher. It will be beamed three times in succession at four sunlike stars about 60 light-years from Earth, using a 70-meter radio dish at the Evpatoriya Radio Observatory in Ukraine.

But on 13 May, computer game programmer Paul Houx of Utrecht, the Netherlands, spotted errors in a page on geometry reprinted in the Dutch popular science magazine Kijk. They were minor mistakes: "two instances where an equals sign was represented by a wrong symbol," he says. Houx contacted Dutil, who was "not happy" with the discovery. "I didn't sleep for a couple of nights," he says.

Reprogramming the radio transmission would take a lot of time, says Dutil. Moreover, the Evpatoriya observatory has no Internet connection, so it would be impossible to get the message there in time for Monday's broadcast. "We learned about our mistake too late," he says. But Houx worries about the impression the message will leave on alien listeners: "I'm afraid we might be judged as a sloppy species by the League of Galactic Civilizations," he says.

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