Tweeting Aliens: The Lone Signal Array

gliese-581-eIn what could be called a case of serious repurposing – beating swords into plowshares and so forth – or something out of science-fiction, a crowdfunded project has sought to turn a Cold War era dish into a deep-space communications array. This array will send messages to that’s relatively near to us, and potentially inhabited. And assuming anything sufficiently advanced lives there, we could be talking to them soon enough.

dishantennaThe project is known as Lone Signal, a crowdfunded effort to send a continuous stream of messages to the folks at Gliese 526, a red dwarf star 17.6 light-years away in the constellation of Bootes (aka Wolf 498). And the dish with which they intend to do this is known as the Jamesburg Earth Station, a nuke-proof satellite relay station in California that dates from the 1960s and even helped broadcast images of Neil Armstrong on the moon.

Long Signal, it should be noted, is the brainchild of The Blue Marble Space Institute of Science, non-profit virtual research institute that networks scientists from across the globe and multiple disciplines for the purpose of expanding the boundaries of knowledge, science and astronomy and promoting an open dialogue on the subject of exploration and settlement.Towards this end, they arranged for a 30-year lease on the Cold War-era dish (for a cool $3 million) and set up a project that will allow participants who contribute money to send a personalized message into space.

exoplanetsUltimately, they plan to direct two beams at Gliese 526: a continuous wave with fundamental physics laws and basic information about Earth, and another consisting of crowdsourced greetings. The project is open to anyone and a series of initial short message (the equivalent of a 144-character tweet) will be available free of charge. Subsequent messages, images, and longer greetings, however, will cost money (about $1 for four texts) that will help the project fund itself.

The project’s website also lets participants track their messages and share them via social media, dedicate messages to others, and view signal stats. In an interview with Universe Today, Lone Signal co-founder Pierre Fabre, told people:

Our scientific goals are to discover sentient beings outside of our solar system. But an important part of this project is to get people to look beyond themselves and their differences by thinking about what they would say to a different civilization. Lone Signal will allow people to do that.

Indeed. Nothing like the prospect of facing another life form, a potential space invader even, to make people forget about all their petty bickering!

Gliese_581_-_2010As our knowledge of the universe expands, we are becoming aware of the existence of more and more exoplanets. Many of these exist within the Habitable Zones of their parent star, which means two things. On the one hand, they may be candidates for potential settlement in the future. On the other, they may already be home to sentient life. If said life is sufficiently advanced, its entirely possible they could be looking back at us.

For some time, the human race has been contemplating First Contact with potential extra-terrestrial life, which was the very purpose behind the creation of NASA’s SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) program in 1961. The Pioneer space probes were another attempt at making contact, both of which carried small metal plaques identifying their time and place of origin for the benefit of any other spacefarers that might find them in the distant future.

SETIFollowing in that tradition, Voyager 1 and 2 space probes contained even more ambitious messages, otherwise known as the Golden Record. These phonograph records – two 12-inch gold-plated copper disks – contained both sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth that would give any civilization that found them a good idea of what the people of Earth were capable of.

The contents of the records were selected for NASA by a committee chaired by Carl Sagan of Cornell University, and consisted of 115 images and a variety of natural sounds – surf, wind, thunder, birds, whales, and other animals. To this they added musical selections from different cultures and eras, and spoken greetings from Earth-people in fifty-five languages, and printed messages from then-President Carter and U.N. Secretary General Waldheim.

golden_record_cover_smIn this respect, Lone Signal represents the latest step in promoting contact and communication with other life forms. And in keeping with the trend of modern space exploration, it is being opened to the public via crowdfunding and personalized messages. But unlike SETI, which lost its government funding in 1995 and had to turn to private supporters, crowdfunded space exploration is something directly accessible by all citizens, not just corporate financiers.

Update: The Lone Signal project is now operational and on 9:00 PM EDT Monday, June 17 at a press event in New York, the team announced the transmission of the first interstellar message. The message was sent by none other than Ray Kurzweil, noted Futurist and science guru. That message was then read during his welcome talk to the Singularity University class of 2013, from the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California:

Greetings to Gliese 526 from Singularity University. As you receive this, our computers have made us smarter, the better to understand you and the wisdom of the universe.

What he means by this is that by the time the message is recieved – roughly 18 years from now, assuming it ever is – humanity is likely to have taken the first steps towards merging our brains with computers via biotech, artificial intelligence, or other means of computer-assisted brain augmentation. At least, that’s what guys like Kurzweil hope for.

Other “alpha beamers” — including Dan Aykroyd, Alicia Keys, and Jason Silva — also sent beams Monday night. And for the time being, anyone can send a “crowdsourced” 144-character beam and pic. Better get on it before they start charging. If texting and phone rates are any indication, the price is likely to go up as the plan improves!

And be sure to enjoy this promotional video from Lone Signal:


And also check out this time-lapse video of the Jamesburg Earth Station in operation:

Sources: cnet.news.com, universetoday.com, voyager.jpl.nasa.gov, bmsis.org, kurzweil.net

Glowing Plants and the Future of Gene Patenting

DNA-1Synthetic biology – also known as biohacking – is an emerging and controversial scientific field that uses gene-writing software to compile DNA sequences. And thanks to a recent ruling handed down by the US Supreme Court, it is a process which is now entirely legal. All told, the potential applications of synthetic biology are largely useful, leading to lifesaving cures, or altered crops that survive in any environment.

However, there are numerous potential (and potentially harmful) commercial applications that could emerge from this as well. One such advancement comes from a DIY synthetic biology lab known as Glowing Plant, one that specializes in synthetic bio hacking. Basically, the project was one of many that emerged out of Singularity University – a research institute dedicated future technologies today.

glowing_plantsGlowing Plant was  originally created to show the power of DIY synthetic biology, and has since sets its sights on developing a species of glowing house plant for consumers. To fund their goal, they opened up a Kickstarter campaign – the first of its kind – with the goal of $65,000. Based on research from the University of Cambridge and the State University of New York, the Glowing Plants campaign promised backers that they would receive seeds to grow their own glowing Arabidopsis plants at home.

glowing_plants2Glowing Plant also announced that if the campaign reaches its $400,000 stretch goal, glowing rose plants will also become available. As of the publication of this article, they passed that goal with a whopping $484,013 from a total of 8,433 backers. It seems there are no shortage of people out there who want to get their hands on a glowing house plant.

But Glowing Plant, the laboratory behind the project, has no intention of stopping there. As Antony Evans, co-founder of the project explained:

We wanted to test the idea of whether there is demand for synthetic biology projects. People are fundamentally excited and enthusiastic about synthetic biology.

Given the thousands of people backing the project, I’d say he’s right! But rest assured, Evans and his team have no intention of stopping there. The ultimate goal is to create larger species of glowing plants.

glowing_plants1The method used to achieve this is really quite interesting. It starts with the team downloading the luciferase-lucifern genes – the firefly DNA that allows them to glow – into a Genome Compiler, and then rewiring the DNA so that the proteins can be read by plants. The DNA sequences are then sent off to DNA printing company Cambrian Genomics, which has developed a relatively low-cost laser printing system. Those sequences are printed, put on a little spot of paper, and mailed back to the team.

After that, the team relies on one of two methods to transmit the firefly DNA into the Arabidopsis’ themselves. One way is to use a bacteria solution that is capable of injecting its own DNA into plants and rewriting theirs, which then causes the altered plants to germinate seeds of the new glowing strain. The other involves gold nano-particles coated with a DNA construct that are then fired at the plant cells, which are then absorbed into the plant chromosomes and alters their DNA.

NanoparticlesThis second method was devised to do an end run around specific Department of Agriculture regulations that govern the use of viruses or other pathogens to modify DNA. Though technically legal, the process has attracted resistance from environmental groups and the scientific community, fearing that the DNA of these altered plants will get into the natural gene pool with unknown consequences.

In fact, an anti-synthetic biology group called ECT has emerged in response to this and other such projects – and is centered in my old hometown of Ottawa! They have countered Glowing Plant’s Kickstarter campaign (which is now closed) with a fundraising drive of their own, entitled “Kickstopper”. In addition, the group has started a campaign on Avaaz.org to force the Supreme Court to reconsider the ruling that allows this sort of bioengineering to take place.

At present, their fundraising campaign has raised a total of  $1,701 from 58 backers – rougly 9% of its overall goal of $20,000 – and their Avaaz campaign has collected some 13,000 signatures. With 36 days left, there is no telling if they’re efforts will succeed in forcing a legal injunction on Glowing Plant, or if this is the first of many synthetic biology products that will make it to the market through private research and crowdfunding.

A fascinating time we live in, and potentially frightening…

Sources: fastcoexist.com, (2), kickstarter.com, glowingplant.com