The 16th of November, 1974. This date may not seem all that significant, but let me explain. On this date, the Arecibo message was broadcast to the star cluster Messier 13, situated 21,000 light-years from the Earth.
It was sent there for nothing more than posterity, though there was always the off chance that maybe, just maybe, we would get a reply. This message was intended to reach the very centre of Messier 13 in 21,000 years, by which time our species would most likely be long extinct.
On June 17th, 2039, we received a reply to the Arecibo message. It hadn’t even been 65 years since the message was sent, and there was no way the message had arrived that quickly from a star that far away. The message consisted of thousands of strings of binary, accompanied by an identical copy of the Arecibo message. The most significant is the following:
01000010 01100101 00100000 01110001 01110101 01101001 01100101 01110100 00101110
When translated, scientists found a message, in English. We don't know how it was English—it shouldn't have even been any Earth language—but it was directed specifically at mankind:
When NASA received the signal, their first priority was to contact other radio observatories, to see if they’d got it too. They had, and what’s more, they’d received more signals almost identical to the Arecibo reply—subsequently dubbed the ‘Be Quiet’ signal.
Unless some professional hacker was blocking and changing the signals of all observatories worldwide, there was no chance that this was a hoax. It was soon found that the message had, by circumstances unknown, arrived at, and had been intercepted by, a possible civilization in orbit of the star HD 192263, an orange dwarf star in the constellation of Aquila. This was our first sign that something strange was going on. The only planet known to orbit HD 192263 is a gas giant star known as Beirut, or, more formally, HD 192263b.
The conditions on this world were far too harsh for life to evolve; its orbit is only a quarter of the length of Mercury, the closest planet to our sun, which implies that the planet is bathed in constant, unwavering heat. What’s more, its close position suggested it may be tidally locked. This suggested that the signal was coming elsewhere. But where? Since the reply came directly from the HD 192263 system, and not another nearby system, the combined efforts of NASA and ESA concluded that the signal must have originated from a previously unknown planet in orbit of the star.
The attentions of all space telescopes in orbit of our planet changed simultaneously. Their main focus changed entirely, and they soon began to focus on the HD 192263 system. Our top scientists waited, with bated breath, for a reply. It wasn’t long until we got one. On June 20th, just three days after the first signal, we received yet another signal. This new signal consisted of another, incredibly lengthy string of binary. An abbreviated form of this translates to one simple message:
‘Please. Stop sending signals. They will hear you.’
This was a response nobody was expecting. This time, every radio observatory on the side of the planet facing HD 192263, as well as every satellite, received it almost simultaneously. This time, the signal repeated itself again and again, once an hour, for a total of five days. This signal, too, received a nickname: the ‘Admonition Signal’.
At this point, there was very little doubt that this was something big. And so, the media was informed. From the moment the news about the signal was released, the human population, including myself, had mixed reactions. Some were excited for the benefits this may bring, others afraid of a possible invasion, and others still which were entirely sceptical.
Then, there were the conspiracy theorists. For weeks after the news, I remember the internet was abuzz with videos by conspiracy theorists, claiming that HD 192263 was the home-world of the greys, or energy beings, or insectoids. I even saw one fringe group suggesting that it might be a deliberate broadcast aimed at us to manipulate our population, whatever that was supposed to mean. Others, still, felt they had good reason to worry. There'd been a hypothesis circling around for years now, the so-called 'Dark Forest' hypothesis, which basically states that aliens are maintaining radio silence in fear of being discovered by some more powerful, malevolent race.
As I refreshed the page again, I found a new article. One that explained how the signal was directed to an entirely different star. The scientist in the article explained that it might be something called a von Neumann probe. ‘Von Neumann probes,’ he said, ‘are a hypothetical combination of a self-replicating machine and a probe. They use whatever resources available to replicate themselves, and could be positioned in a multitude of solar systems in order to monitor solar systems. Perhaps the von Neumann probe is redirecting signals from certain planets to its home-world. In this case, an unknown planet in orbit of HD 192263.’
At first, this seemed like nothing more than baseless speculation, until I read a little further into the article.
‘The Haystack Observatory, in Massachusetts, detected a radio anomaly in what looks like the orbit of Pluto,’ Senter continued. ‘It appears to be roughly 300 metres in diameter, and its position and orbital speed indicates the Arecibo signal would have been at least somewhat interrupted by the anomaly’s presence.’
Senter went on to list the evidence that this was not a stray object from the Kuiper Belt, and that there were numerous lines of evidence which suggested that it may have been a von Neumann probe.
Subsequent articles I found on other newspapers, and even some published right after the interview with Senter, cast doubt on his claims. ‘It’s just a comet,’ one said. ‘Just a hoax,’ another one said. This sounded weird, for sure.
I thought at the time that they must have known more than I did, and maybe even that Senter was breaking an embargo by telling the world. Then, Senter put out another official statement, but it wasn’t more information on the probe.
It was an apology. He claimed that he’d made a mistake, claimed that there was no von Neumann probe after all. Looking back at it, I think he was just trying to save his credibility. After all, everyone did think it was a mistake at the time.
We would find out over the coming weeks that it was no mistake.
Within a few weeks of the interview with Senter, most of the hype over the HD 192263 incident had died off. The conspiracy theorists now claimed it was a hoax intended to distract us from the ‘government’s true plan’, whatever that meant.
That is, until the 23rd of October. On that day, NASA released an official statement that confirmed Senter was at least partly right. The radio anomaly in the orbit of Pluto had begun moving erratically, in patterns that should not be possible for a natural object. The current consensus was that it was artificial. NASA still didn’t think that Senter was right to identify it as a von Neumann probe straight away. So, what did they do?
They had no idea as to the exact nature and intentions of the object, and decided it was probably best to wait for it to make the first move. Sending their own probe could be seen as a sign of aggression, and could cause things to go sour. So, the world waited. And waited. And waited some more. There was no activity from the object besides its erratic movements, not even after a couple of years.
On the 17th of June, 2042, it finally did something.
On that date, the object began to spiral inwards. Not towards Pluto, not towards any of the other plants, not even towards the moon. Towards the Earth. The anomaly had started to move towards us, and as telescopes watched over the coming months, it started to get closer and closer.
It was coming straight for us, at a speed of around 87,500 km/h. More than twice as fast than New Horizons, NASA told us. If it maintained its current speed and trajectory, it would arrive at Earth in a little under six years. The object only speeded up as it approached the Earth, slowing down as it passed Jupiter.
On the 17th of June, 2047, six years after the radio anomaly began hurtling towards the Earth, it made it to near-Earth orbit. By now, we were sure. Everyone was sure. This couldn’t have been a hoax, no way. They approached, and this time, we received yet another message.
01000010 01000101 00100000 01010001 01010101 01001001 01000101 01010100
The arrival of this message made it seem more likely that these were the aliens which had contacted us before, and it begged the question: was this a race which was merely annoyed with the radio signals Earth was emitting, or was it something worse? There was no turning back now. We could either cower in fear, or we could reach out, and get to know the creatures from beyond the stars.
On June 21st, 2047, the probe made it to the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere. It was now or never. Using the same binary system the aliens had broadcast to us, the human race sent out another message of our own:
‘What do you want?’
In response, we got a single message, one which made us realize the fatal error of our ways, made us realize that these were not the creatures that had last contacted us, but the first ones.
'Have you heard of the Dark Forest?'
Written by Palaeontologica