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Geek Trivia: Skies on the prize

Who was the first person to offer a prize for establishing communications with another planet, an X Prize-style contest that was established decades before the Pioneer plaque, the WOW signal, or the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence?

You know, it wasn't that long ago that indie rock fans were the only ones who had to worry about their favorite artists selling out to commercial interests for the sake of an easy buck. These days, SETI groupies must endure the horror of their favorite astronomic installations becoming instruments of The Man. Don't believe me? Then explain away the shame of a Ukrainian radio telescope firing off a list of Web-collected images towards Gliese 581c as part of a publicity stunt on behalf of the social networking site Bebo.

That was just last week, and it was merely the latest example of radio astronomy advertising. Back on June 15, 2008, the University of Leicester helped Doritos broadcast a fan-made video towards a vaguely Earthlike solar system in Ursa Major. Because when several European nations helped underwrite the EISCAT radio telescope array in the arctic, it was with the intention of pimping cool-ranch flavored snack foods to the bugbear people of 47 UMa.

The Doritos stunt followed a March 2005 transmission of 100,000 Craigslist postings into deep space, just in case our new extraterrestrial overlords need a dorm couch, used washer/dryer set, or a psychosocial treatise on the human condition, courtesy of your friendly neighborhood barista.

What's next? An updated version of the Pioneer plaque with a Starbucks menu on the back, just in case ET wants a venti caramel latte while plotting the invasion of Earth?

On some level, you have to accept that this is just a maturation of radio astronomy technology to the point where it is commercially accessible. Honestly, it can't be that hard to transmit a message into outer space, considering that Japanese astronomer Hisashi Hirabayashi half-jokingly beamed 13 images towards Altair in 1983. If we could spam another star back in the early 1980s, is it any wonder we can hit up exoplanets with viral YouTube campaigns today?

For better or worse, we've come a long way from the Arecibo Message, which was a carefully conceived digital missive beamed towards globular star cluster M13 (so lots of solar systems would receive it). Carl "I wrote Contact" Sagan and Frank "The Drake Equation" Drake came up with that serious "Hello World" to the cosmos -- though even Sagan was forced to admit it was about generating buzz for the Arecibo Observatory than actually placing a call to any little green men.

Thus, you have to ponder what the earliest pioneers of interplanetary communication would think of our modern Earth-to-Universe talkback environment. The person to ask is probably the one who created the first SETI-esque X prize, a build-it-and-I-will-pay contest for the first person to establish contact with another world.

WHO OFFERED THE FIRST PRIZE FOR COMMUNICATING WITH OTHER PLANETS, AND WHEN WAS THE DEADLINE?

Get the answer.

About

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger -- amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

14 comments
kevin
kevin

I would think Mr. Armstrong's commuication from the moon 30+ years ago, would be a done deal for the prize? Kevin Smith

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

All radio signals, regardless of content, obey the inverse square law?the signal power decreases with the square of the distance. Basically, each time the distance from the antenna doubles, the signal strength is divided by four. In "Earth" measures, a light year is 9.4607304725808 x 10^15 m (about 9.461 pm) or 5.878625373183 x 10^(12 + 849/1397) (nearly six trillion) miles. (http://www.nationmaster.com/encyclopedia/Light-year) For a 1,000 watt transmission, the signal strength at a distance of one light year is 1.1172507631287326873409989371953 x 10^-29 watts or a little more than .00001 yoctowatts (10^-24 watts). The most sensitive receiver of which I'm aware can't detect intelligence in signals with a strength of less than 1 picowatt (10^-12 watts). To achieve a 1 picowatt signal at one light year, the original signal would need to be 100,000,000,000,000,000 times stronger at 10^20 kilowatts (100 exawatts). The good news: ET isn't watching I Love Lucy or Survivor. The bad news (much as I hate to admit it): SETI is probably doomed to ultimate failure and we won't know it until ET lands. Edit: fix the numbers

pat
pat

Damn, Jay. I certainly wish you'd get off the fence and tell us how you REALLY feel ;-) As much as my sci-fi geekness would love for it to happen, we're not likely to see any result from all the "noise" we've been broadcasting over all these decades. As was mentioned before, none of the signals have been strong enough to make it more than couple light-years before being lost in background noise.

ChrisHyche@AlabamaOne.Org
ChrisHyche@AlabamaOne.Org

...and getting responses by way of our various probes/rovers. Sure nothing outside our solar system(yet), but still.

bruce
bruce

We've been beaming drivel to the universe for over 60 years in the form of TV, plus radio before that. I can't imagine any intelligent species wanting to visit such and inane place as Earth unless "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" was really nonfiction.

RipVan
RipVan

Suppose there is a viable civilization out there. Well, today, anyway. But by the time our signal reaches them, they are in another "dinosaur" period. Or maybe someone, somewhere gets our signal and comes out to make contact, but by the time they get here, we are the ones in another "dinosaur" period. Perhaps we have been playing "SETI" tag for millions of years and don't even know it yet. Hold on, Bluto wants me to take another toke...

Lovs2look
Lovs2look

?the person of whatever nation who will find the means within the next ten years of communicating with a star and of receiving a response.? So the Moon doesn't count. But who could communicate "with" a star anyway???. AND with all the "noise" that stars produce, I suspect it's near on impossible to send a (clear) signal anyway.

RipVan
RipVan

This is just the measure of how WE understand and implement technology. Also, I am not attempting to demean the hard work you put in to all those numbers, but they are probably meaningless, as I bet that ET has cable...

boomchuck1
boomchuck1

Indeed we have been, but those signals are weak and probably wouldn't reach any solar systems strong enough to register. The advantage of a strong radio telescope beaming a signal is that the signal will be intensified and directly aimed. That directional beaming is the reason we can still talk with the Voyager space craft even though their signal is about the strength of a 60 watt lightbulb.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

I thought he lived outside the [Time Warner / Comcast / Cox / Insight / Your cable company here] service area! :p

RipVan
RipVan

I think the philosophy is good. I am devoting all my energy to this project!

pat
pat

He probably just steals it from his neighbors

RipVan
RipVan

...that he has the REAL thing. Superior to the crapola we get (you know, good customer service), and I'll bet it's bundled, so he can phone home!

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