This Astrophysicist Posed an Alien Challenge and the Internet Is Racing to Solve It


If aliens sent you an encrypted binary message, could you answer? René Heller, an astrophysicist at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, wants to hear from you.

Last month, Heller posed a hypothetical question in what he dubbed the #SETIDecryptChallenge, for "search for extraterrestrial intelligence." 

"Suppose a telescope on Earth receives a series of pulses from a fixed, unresolved source beyond the solar system," he wrote. "It turns out the pulses carry a message."

The encrypted message is a vast sea of 0s and 1s. You can see it here, but here's a GIF for your convenience.

Mic/Max Planck Institute

According to Heller, a successful code-cracker should be able to identify the height of an alien, how long it lives, how big its signal-transmitting device is, how long it's been communicating across the galaxy, what it lives on and how old its solar system is.

The rules are simple: You can collaborate with as many people as you want. You can chat about it on social media. You get three hints. And whatever method you use to turn in your results, they have to be readable by a human.

But what's so exciting about this is how people on Twitter are working to solve it by offering their own analysis as a starting point for others.

On June 3, Heller will announce the successful code-crackers. And while it's probably not a message he needs actual help solving, the challenge might serve to strengthen the global community of people trying to find out if we're alone in the world — or who might have come before us.