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.


Get the answer.