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Friday, June 13, 2008

Sending Doritos to space

Cut and posted from Warren Ellis's Livejournal on 6/13/08

Given the choice, how would you prefer to announce the presence of your species in local space? Imagine all the ways you could describe the emergence of a digital-age society on this planet. All the ways you could explain our species and our environment and biosphere, and explain that, no, we’re not perfect, we’re still fighting, we still haven’t resolved our relationship with nature, there are still hungry people and sick people. But we’re trying, and in some places we’re winning, and although we can’t reach you, we could really use a friend. All the ways in which you could hope to open up a conversation with the Other, wherever it may lie.

Or you could just send them a Doritos ad.

Because, yes, on the morning of June 12 2008, the EISCAT high-powered space transmitter station on Svalbard used its array of radars to beam a Doritos ad at a solar system 42 light years from here.

For six hours, the MPEG video file was repeatedly pulsed at system 47 UMa, in the Ursa Minor constellation, which was chosen because it seems to have a circumstellar habitable zone. 47 UMa does have two Jupiter-class planets outside the HZ, although one of them is so massive that it very probably does weird gravity things to the outside edge of the HZ. This means that, if there are Earth-like rocky planets inside the habitable zone that we just can’t see yet, there’s a fair chance they’ll be small, lumpy, thirsty and ugly. Like a man in a Foster’s commercial. Or, presumably, a Doritos one.

EISCAT, which has had funding problems, has received an undisclosed but presumably substantial donation from Doritos in return for the broadcast, which will help them meet their actual aims of performing radar astronomy experiments. The director of EISCAT is quoted as saying: ""Some years in the future, the money that comes from this kind of commercial service could be used to fund pure research."

This would seem to open the door to polluting local space with the grottiest capitalistic artifacts conceivable in return for being able to do a bit of science. That’s a pretty high cost — of a piece with the recurring nightmare in fiction of the Coca-Cola logo being permanently sprayed on the surface of the moon. Others will champion this as private enterprise giving science the boost it needs, which is usually where I’m told to wave my hands in glee that Richard Branson and his mates have created a zippy goshwow 21st Century space business on the same kind of suborbital lob Alan Shepherd managed in 1961 (and a fair distance short of the full orbital flight Yuri Gagarin made).

Fuck that. I don’t care. Attempting to announce our presence to any intelligence that can get in front of the signal by sending them something made by a company that sells crunchy shit in bags is not the way to the maturity of the species.

According to the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence’s Permanent Study Group, it’s been argued that "a civilization which hopes to detect radio evidence of other civilizations in the cosmos is obligated to reveal its own presence. Others maintain that it is suicidal to shout in the jungle." There is, therefore, a San Marino Scale measuring risk in these matters. You can play with an online calculator, if you know a few specifics, to work out whether or not a signal broadcast into space will in fact bring down the alien hordes ov chewy doooom. And if it does, you know damn well that their first words will be "Sponsored by Doritos?"

Amazingly (to me), it’s not the first time we’ve fired signals at 47 UMa. Notional lifeforms in-system will also one day be privy to The 1st Theremin Concern For Aliens. They’re due to get that in the summer of 2047. The funny thing about that, of course, is that the theremin was usually used to announce the presence of spooky space aliens in 1950s science fiction films…

We’re just asking for it, really.

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