BBC News Sci/Tech: A cosmic mistake

NASA Watch: Canadian astronomers make Earthlings look like fools

Encounter 2001 Message by Y. Dutil and S. Dumas

AAS Meeting #193 - Austin, texas, Januray 1999: Active SETI: Targets Selection and Message Conception

Interstellar Communication

Encounter 2001 project

IJsfontein News Flash

May 27, 1999

Paul Houx detects error in 'Alien Message'

On may 10, our programmer Paul Houx found a serious error in a message sent to four solar systems near Earth. He was able to notify the people responsible for this message just in time. On may 24, the corrected message was beamed up from the Russian Observatory Evpatoria in the Ukraine.

Paul read about the transmission in a Dutch populair science magazine called 'KIJK'. Along with the article, some images were shown of the exact pages that would be transmitted in digital form. Just for fun, he tried to decode the cryptic images. Within five minutes, he discovered a small error that could confuse the receivers of the message when they would try to read it.

He reported his findings to the author of the article, Carl Koppeschaar, who suggested him to get in contact with the Canadian astronomers Yvan Dutil a nd Stephane Dumas, the ones responsible for the alien message. Yvan Dutil suggested to first check all 23 pages of the message to see if the error would persist. Dutil:

"Thank's for your help. I've waited for such a detailed review for many months. You are the first who gets so deeply involved in the revision process. We tried very hard to get a sort of peer review from people like you."

On may 13, Paul went through the complete message in a six hour session and, although the page containing the error was different from the one published in 'KIJK', reported to Dutil that he still thought there was an error in the message. Dutil replied:

"You are right! I was fearing this!!! We will try to correct this error before the transmission. The error comes from a change in the caracter convention. But I cannot garanty anything!"

(In the image above, notice how the 'equals' sign
in the upper two equations differs from the correct one
in the definition of Pi.)

Soon afterwards, Dutil contacted Houx again:

"Unfortunatly, it appears [correcting the message in time] is impossible for this year. We need to go home to do the correction. Unfortunately, the russian scientist who is responsible for the project will travel to the transmitter today where we will be unable to reach him! We've checked this message 10 times at least, and it has been checked many times by other people, too."

Carl Koppeschaar notified the reporters Mark Traa (Trouw) and Govert Schilling (Volkskrant), who both published articles in these two major Dutch newspapers. Several web-based news magazines wrote about it, too. On may 25, a day after the transmission, Dutil reported to Houx:

"Fortunately, we have been able to reach the Russians and correct the error before the transmission. Some errors may still have passed through the net but they will be more subtile than those you have found.

The Russians had told us they would be unreachable at Evpatoria! Then, on Friday morning surprise! We received an email from them! At that moment, we sent them a corrected version of the message (we changed the equal character and aligned the paragraph character. By the way, I suggested this last correction to Stephane a month or two ago but he may have forgotten it.

I owe you a beer!"

January 9, 1999

Astronomers Get Ready to Call E.T.

Physicists are announcing today that they have designed a message to be broadcast in the direction of nearby stars in order to search for extra-terrestrial intelligence. This project is being presented by Dr. Yvan Dutil and Stephane Dumas from the Defence Research Establishment Valcartier, near Quebec City (Canada), to the American Astronomical Society meeting in Austin, TX. This is the first time in a quarter of a century that such a cosmic call will be attempted. This experiment is promoted by the Encounter 2001 project, an international spaceflight project which is planned for launch into interstellar space in the year 2001.

The complete message is about 400,000 bits long and will be transmitted three times over a 3-hour period in the direction of the four selected stars. Then, it will be followed by a series of greetings from people around the world. The transmission will start on March 15 1999. This message is much larger in size, duration and scope than the one sent by Frank Drake on November 16th, 1974 from the Arecibo observatory which consisted of only 1,679 bits sent over a 3 minute duration.

Finding a transmitter for this task was not easy; the project will use a 70 m (230 ft) Ukrainian antenna equipped with a 150 kW transmitter broadcasting at 5 GHz (6 cm). Using this antenna, any civilization within 100 light-years which has access to a radio-telescope with an area of one squared-kilometer will be able to read the message. The artificial nature of the message should be able to be detected by similar instruments at distances up to 10,000 light-years. A radio-telescope of this size will be built on Earth in the near future.

The message itself has been designed using some of the principles of interstellar communication proposed in the early works of Hans Freudenthal, Frank Drake and Carl Sagan. Mathematics and physics have been used to define the message, so that it will be clear and based on universal concepts. For example, the hydrogen atom can be used to describe quantities such as mass, electric charge and length. To these basic ideas were added simple notions of astronomy, biology, geography and cosmology. Easier concepts and ideas are at the beginning while the more elaborate ones appear at the end of the message. Any true communication is not complete without an answer. Therefore, the last page of the message invites anyone who reads it to reply, sending information about themselves.

The message has been built to minimize the loss of information due to noise introduced into the signal during its interstellar flight. To minimize the risk of confusion, a set of characters was created which are fairly different from each other. Redundant information is included to allow cross-checking of the message. The addition of a frame around each page of the message, and the inclusion of page and section numbers will also help the translation process.

For many years, most research projects dedicated to the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) have scanned the sky trying to detect any signals sent by extra-terrestrial civilizations willing to communicate with us. So far, the sky has remained silent. All these searches have been passive: what is proposed now is to send a message in order to catch the attention of an extra-terrestrial civilization.

In order to maximize the probability of detection, the direction of the transmission has been carefully chosen to include stars similar to our Sun, and to limit the degradation of the signal as it travels through the vast reaches of interstellar space. Fortunately, there is a region between the spiral arms of our galaxy where the signal can be transmitted over long distances without too much degradation. This region is situated between 50 and 90 degrees of galactic longitude, which corresponds roughly to the region of the sky called the "Summer Triangle". Four stars, clones of our Sun, have been selected from the list made by the SETI institute. These target stars are located at distances between 50 and 70 light-years from the Sun.

Target List

Names       l    |b|    a (J2000)       d (J2000)       Type    D(Lyr)   V

HD190360    67   1      20h03m37.41s    +29d53m48.51s   G7V     51.8   5.73

HD190406    57   8      20h04m06.23s    +17d04m12.64s   G1V     57.6   5.08

HD186408    83   13     19h41m48.95s    +50d31m30.21s   G3V     70.5   5.99

HD178428    50   4      19h07m57.32s    +16d51m12.24s   G6V     68.3   6.08

Table headings: l and |b| are the coordinates of the target star in galactic latitude and (absolute) longitude, while a and d give the Right Ascension and Declination of the star in the J2000 coordinate system. The star's spectral type is given next; for comparison, our Sun is a G2V. The next column gives the distances to each star in light years. The last column gives the Visual magnitude (brightness) of each star.

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