First Contact! Global Theater Explores Earth Response

What do you think would happen if we received a message from aliens? Hollywood loves to explore this premise.

If you’re my age, you will likely have seen Contact, the 1997 movie based on Carl Sagan’s book of the same name. Luckily, the aliens were benevolent. The War of the Worlds, Orson Welles’ radio depiction of H. G. Wells’ book of the same name, terrified radio listeners on October 30, 1938, who believed it was an actual news broadcast of an alien invasion. 

Movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Independence Day (1996), and even the musical Little Shop of Horrors (1960 & 1986) take a look at how humanity and aliens might interact once we know they’re out there.

In our world of 24/7 immediate news, social media, and conspiracy theories, how do you think the people of Earth would react to an intelligent signal from space? That’s precisely what Daniela de Paulis, licensed radio operator and artist-in-residence at the SETI Institute and Green Bank Observatory, is exploring.

A Sign in Space is an event of global theater exploring the process of decoding and interpreting an extraterrestrial message involving the worldwide SETI community, professionals from different fields, and the broader public. 

On May 24, 2023, at 19:00 UTC / 12:00 pm PDT, the European Space Agency’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) will transmit an encoded message to Earth from its Mars orbit. Three world-class radio astronomy observatories across the globe will detect the message to allow the public to contribute to its decoding and interpretation.

“A Sign in Space offers the unprecedented opportunity to tangibly rehearse and prepare for this scenario through global collaboration, fostering an open-ended search for meaning across all cultures and disciplines,” says de Paulis.

Following the transmission, teams at the Allen Telescope Array (ATA), the Green Bank Observatory (GBO), and the Medicina Radio Astronomical Station will process the signal and make it available to the public. The SETI Institute will store the data in collaboration with Breakthrough Listen Open Data Archive and Filecoin, preserving it and making it available for analysis and future decoding endeavors.

L-R (clockwise): The Allen Telescope Array, Green Bank Telescope and Medecina Radio Astronomical Station
Allen Telescope Array: Joe Marfia Green Bank Telescope: Jay Young Medecina Radio Astronomical Station: Medecina Radio Astronomical Station

“This experiment is an opportunity for the world to learn how the SETI community, in all its diversity, will work together to receive, process, analyze, and understand the meaning of a potential extraterrestrial signal,” said ATA Project Scientist Dr. Wael Farah. “More than astronomy, communicating with ET will require a breadth of knowledge.”

Anyone working to decode and interpret the message can discuss the process in the A Sign in Space Discord server. You can submit findings, thoughts, and artistic and scientific inputs through the dedicated submission form on the project’s website:

Following the transmission, the A Sign in Space team will host a series of Zoom-based discussions which are open to the public. They’ll touch on topics considering the societal implications of detecting a signal from an intelligent, extraterrestrial civilization. These discussions will take place over 6-8 weeks after the transmission.

You can find a list of events with registration links here. Go here to register to decode the message.

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