The financial shortfalls of an extraterrestrial texting service

This summer, Lone Signal beamed thousands of our text messages for 25 cents each to a distant star thought to harbor habitable planets.

Earlier this summer, space-technology startup Lone Signal began sending text messages to Gliese 526, a red dwarf star thought to harbor planets with habitable, Earth-like atmospheres. For 99 cents, you could send four text messages to possibly intelligent life forms 17.6 light years away.

But this week, the New York-based company expects to end its experiment in combining deep space exploration with social media because they can no longer afford to pay their bills. Businessweek reports.

Since June 17, Lone Signal has transmitted about 7,200 messages from 163 countries toward Gliese 526 from the Jamesburg Earth Station radio telescope in California. Users purchased credits for about 25 cents each. A text-only beam (144-character limit) costs one credit; transmitting a photo costs three.

Beams ranged from Bible verses, to boyfriends’ photos, to a philosophical treatise by Dan Aykroyd. Messages include a carrier signal explaining Earth's position, outlining the periodic table, and defining the hydrogen atom in binary code.

The scientific part of the message will be sent continuously as a way to alert anyone out there that we are here and have fully sorted hydrogen, the universe’s most abundant element. The other part is capitalistic, a social-media venture to allow the deep diversity of humanity to send personal messages and images across deep space.

But the company has run into financial difficulties.

Revenue from the site “barely covers even 2 percent” of the four-person company’s costs, which include $400 per day for electricity and monthly rent on the telescope of more than $10,000. Transmissions have also been hobbled the past two weeks by software problems.

“Our strategy was fairly misguided on a lot of fronts,” said Chief Executive Officer Pierre Fabre. “I think we did an amazing thing and we got this done for relatively little money, but we really didn’t do the kind of outreach we should have done before the launch. We probably either should have been all free or charged a lot more.”

The company is considering a Kickstarter campaign and talking with potential investors.

METI (messaging to extraterrestrial intelligence) has generated controversy over arousing extraterrestrial curiosity. In any case, replies won’t get to us until around 2050. The farthest text has traveled 1.1 trillion miles so far -- the total trip distance will take 18 years at the speed of light.

[Lone Signal blog via Bloomberg Businessweek]

Image: Jamesburg Earth Station

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