Rural California’s remote Jamesburg Earth Station is one of the Cold War’s eeriest relics. The giant satellite receiver stood vacant and slowly disintegrating for years, as its owner embarked on a quixotic quest to sell it for three million dollars. But the Earth Station was eventually sold, and Jamesburg’s new owners have leased it to Lone Signal, a new startup that wants to beam text messages and JPGs into space on an equally quixotic quest to contact extraterrestrial life.
Starting on June 18, Lone Signal will beam 144-character SMS messages into outer space as part of what it calls a METI (Messaging to Extraterrestrial Life) project, which will beam content to stars suspected of having habitable planets orbiting around them. The first star Lone Signal is targeting is Gliese 526, a red dwarf approximately 17.6 light years from Earth.
Lone Signal has a non-traditional organizational background in searching for extraterrestrial life. In addition to having strong ties to the scientific community, the group also has ties to the art and gaming communities. CEO Jamie King is best known for starting Rockstar Games, and the alien-hunting organization was co-founded by fashion photographer Greg Kadel and film editor Pierre Fabre. Chief scientist Jacob Haqq-Misra has one of the world’s few PhD’s in astrobiology (from Penn State), and a long time academic interest in searching for extraterrestrial life. Haqq-Misra is also a drummer in a jam rock band which opens for Rusted Root and Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead.
At a New York press conference, Haqq-Misra said that two carrier signals would be coming from Jamesburg using a dual modulator approach. The first signal, a continuous wave carrier, will continuously send a hailing message in binary code to a specific location. The second signal will beam the text messages into space alongside the first signal.
Much like asteroid mining and for-profit space travel venture Planetary Resources, Lone Signal is crowdfunding its research efforts. But while Planetary Resources is crowdfunding self-portraits in outer space, Lone Signal wants to beam your text messages to E.T. All Lone Signal users will get one free SMS message to beam into space; after that, pricing packages range from $1 to $100 to let users beam text messages or images into space. The variable charging policies require users to pay more to send JPGs into space.
Before Lone Signal formally launched, the organization pitched their project on YouTube:
Also, these messages to E.T. won’t be censored. As King put it, "We wanted an opportunity for everyone on Earth to speak their mind." However, users on Lone Signal’s website (which posts all messages slated to go out into outer space) can mark messages as "Not Safe for Work." But rants about evil Republicans or Democrats? Naked pictures of the human form? Gratuitous Howard Stern shout outs? They appear safe for beaming to the heavens.
Lone Signal has a long-term, 30-year lease on use of the Jamesburg satellite and FCC clearance to use the facility for radio transmission.
While Lone Signal’s business plan makes sense and plays on the typical Internet user’s love of novelty and crowdfunded projects, the most impressive aspect of the Jamesburg experiment is the fact that its engineers got the facility up and running (see above). First built in 1968 to help support the Apollo 11 moon landing by AT&T, the space was shut down in 2002 and sold to ham radio researchers who used it to beam signals to the moon. In 2005, the Jamesburg dish and the accompanying complex were purchased for $2 million by Jeffrey Bullis, a wealthy Silicon Valley figure who wanted to convert it into "the ultimate man cave." Bullis sold the property after his son died of leukemia at age 23, and for a while it became a monument to space race history.
Now Jamesburg will hunt for little gray men instead.