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Nice encrypted puzzle game but not original: An alien signal from Mars was received on Earth by three radio telescopes at once as part of the ‘A Sign in Space’ project

Nice encrypted puzzle game but not original: An alien signal from Mars was received on Earth by three radio telescopes at once as part of the 'A Sign in Space' project 1
Photo: ©ESA/ATG medialab

After decades of persistent search for extraterrestrial intelligence, has humanity finally received a real message from space?

Three leading radio astronomy observatories of the Earth recorded a signal coming from somewhere under Mars. But the message is not actually from the inhabitants of another planet. Human scientists orchestrated its transmission as part of a SETI test to simulate receiving a signal from aliens. You can think of it as a dress rehearsal – a chance for all of us to see how we would react if the aliens actually relayed a message to Earth.

This global act is the brainchild of Daniela de Paulis, who works as an artist at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), a leading research institute dedicated to the search for intelligent life in the universe. As part of a project she called A Sign in Space, de Paulis developed the content of the encoded message with a group of scientists.

She then sent the European Space Agency’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, a spacecraft in orbit around Mars, to relay the signal to Earth. It was recorded by the Allen telescope array SETI in California, the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia and the observatory of the Medicina Radio Astronomy Station in Italy. Now the public must decode the radio message. Anyone working on interpreting it can submit the results on the Discord server and project website.

Not the first of its kind

The organizers of the “A Sign in Space” experiment believe that it is the first of its kind but at a time scientists were given the opportunity to decipher not one but 31 alien messages. This follows from a document that was published in 2011 by one of the most secret US agencies – the NSA. The document was called Key To The Extraterrestrial Messages. There it is written in black and white that Dr. Howard Campaigne, who previously presented 29 messages from outer space, was giving the key to deciphering them and introduced two more messages – the 30th and 31st.

The appearance of the document was preceded by inquiries from the public. Citing the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), people demanded that the agency open access to the archives of its NSA Technical Journal. Interested activists somehow found out that it was in it that Dr. Campaign published a series of messages “from outer space”. That is, from aliens.

The NSA eventually made public what was required – specifically the publication in Vol. XIV, no. 1 of the “Technical Journal”.

The US National Security Agency is a serious office. The same applied to the author of the document. Howard Campaigne is a well-known mathematician and cipher genius. During the Second World War, he cracked German ciphers and codes, worked with the legendary Alan Turing and Max Newman in the English Bletchley Park, the main cipher division of Great Britain.

Nice encrypted puzzle game but not original: An alien signal from Mars was received on Earth by three radio telescopes at once as part of the 'A Sign in Space' project 2
The mysterious encrypted signal (“Wow! signal”) arrived in 1977 from the depths of the universe.

And suddenly encryption from aliens and an explanation to the magazine text from Campaigne himself. Messages from aliens – 31 pieces of them – received and transmitted to Earth.

The messages could have been made by Campaigne himself – exclusively for the training of codebreakers. The “aliens” were sort of a fascinating legend and the authors of the A Sign in Space project are not original.

Campaigne began publishing a series of articles on encryption-decryption and on the method of using keys, in the “Technical Journal” in 1966. In the first publications (NSA Technical Journal-Vol. XI, No. 1) he emphasized that it was about a “game” of aliens and about a certain hypothetical situation.

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At the same time, it is known that Campaigne was fond of extraterrestrial themes and he shared the views of his Greek colleague, NSA lead cryptographer Lambros D. Callimahos, were declassified in 2003. For some reason, he believed in the existence of aliens and urged to prepare for the fact that one day they will get in touch. He was very interested in whether the Agency would be able to decipher alien messages, if anything.

It is said that Callimahos’ article “Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence”, also published in the Technical Journal in 1966, laid the foundation for the future Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program.

Some “alien messages” released by the NSA, contain mathematical formulas and equations that are universal for the entire universe. Others are parts of the periodic table. Some have remained undeciphered.


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