Lone Signal will beam your messages into space (where no one will read them)


Since launching on Tuesday, the California-based start-up Lone Signal has beamed messages in dozens of languages. (Lone Signal)

Space enthusiasts have waited patiently for decades to hear from extraterrestrial life. Now a California-based start-up called Lone Signal is giving them a way to “phone home” themselves — and hoping, naturally, that they’ll pay for the privilege.

Lone Signal’s premise is both simple and enticing. For prices ranging from 25 cents to $18, users submit messages up to 10,000 characters long in any language. The company then broadcasts the message alongside an encoded hailing signal, aiming it at a potentially habitable galaxy planet 17.6 light years away.

“Potentially” is the operative word here; as dozens of scientists and science writers have already pointed out, Lone Signal’s whole operation is predicated on a lot of big and improbable ifs.

Kelly Oakes writes in Scientific American that astronomers aren’t even sure there are planets orbiting Gliese 526, Lone Signal’s target star, let alone habitable ones. If there are beings out there, there is only an infinitesimal chance that they’re intelligent and advanced enough to receive and decrypt the encoded hailing signal, and an even more remote chance they could somehow deduce human language from that code. (Try it yourself, if you dare — the signal’s on page 36.)

Even if all those things are true — and we’re dealing with a lot of “ifs,” at this point — Lone Signal’s science team admitted in a February paper that the profound distance between Earth and an alien civilization would make conversation “a multigenerational project.”

But intergalactic communication, of any time frame, isn’t entirely the point. As Lone Signal concedes in its flowery philosophy statement, its “role is as much about the global human community as it is about reaching out across the stars” — in other words, your beams double as performance art. And in conversations with journalists, CEO Jamie King has alluded to the success of SpaceX, a suggestion that the start-up is hoping to capitalize on commercial space explortation just as much as it’s trying to prove the value of winging messages into the cosmos. (The Jamesburg Earth Station, Lone Signal’s home base, is notably a former government dish that was sold off to private interests in the 1970s.)

Both goals could prove difficult, however. Lone Signal’s costs are huge, King told Science 2.0, and they aren’t exactly angling for SpaceX-style contracts. And some detractors, like futurist George Dvorsky, have already dismissed the start-up’s lofty ambitions for a “stable, cohesive and well-resourced interstellar beacon” as “some silly exercise intended to make a bit of money.”

It could of course be years — generations! — before the jury comes back on that one. In the meantime, Lone Signal hopes you will buy a package of 4000 “beams” for $100. We can only hope the aliens have their own space start-up out there, waiting to receive them.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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