I am in one of the world’s most remote places – Svalbard, deep in the Arctic Circle – where I may have witnessed the future of funding for UK science projects.
Yesterday, a giant radar dish on the archipelago spent six hours targeting an advertising message to another solar system for the first time ever.
The wheeze was dreamed up by the marketing men for Doritos corn chips who ran a competition in the UK to make a 30-second commercial to send ET.
It sounds a bit of frivolous fun. But Tony van Eyken, Director of the EISCAT radar facility, saw it as an opportunity to boost public outreach and pick up some funding for their scientific research at a time when the usual sources appear to be running short.
It was also seen as a worthy challenge to find a way to digitize the video and broadcast it in segments. Each full transmission of it took one and a half hours. (You can see the winning advert here.)
The dishes usually study activity above the Earth’s atmosphere in in the ionosphere and magnetosphere due to solar activity. But one on Svalbard was switched to work for Doritos on 12 June. I recall expressing a sense of gloom when the contest was first announced in March, due to the science funding crisis, but it turned out to be great fun.
Space scientists at Leicester University helped pick the target “audience” – a star called 47 UMa in the constellation of Ursa Major. It was chosen because it resembles our own Sun and is already known to have two giant gaseous planets. Astronomers believe there is likely to be a habitable zone containing smaller rocky worlds like Earth in its solar system too.
Today it is winging its way across 250 million million miles of space and will take 42 years to get there at the speed of light. The target star can be seen with the naked eye on a clear dark night.
Professor van Eyken, originally from Chelthenham, Gloucs, is Director of EISCAT. He told me yesterday: “Broadcasting extra-terrestrially is a big and exciting step. Until now we have only listened for incoming transmissions.
“Our astronomers picked the star 47 UMa because it is so much like the Sun. We know it has two planets like our own Jupiter so it could easily have rocky worlds like Earth and so this message could reach millions of aliens.”
As the witty winning ad – which will be shown on ITV at 7.44 on Sunday night – was heading for the Great Bear, real polar bears were prowling the spectacular, icy wilderness on Svalbard (though the only ones I saw were stuffed).
The winning ad was dreamed up by 25-year-old freelance picture researcher Matt Bowron, of Islington, North London, and his pal John Addison, of Shepherds Bush, West London, who works in the film business. They win a £20,000 prize from Doritos.
Matt flew into Svalbard with me to see his ad sent with the giant 500MHz ultra high frequency radar dish. He said: “It’s really cool to think that our ad is the first ever to be sent out into space.” He is in the picture with me above, right, in front of the dish that was sending his ad.
Doritos’ “You make it, we play it” competition had a theme of life on Earth. Called Tribe, Matt’s ad shows a tribe of Doritos escaping from a pack and sacrificing one of their own to the great god of Salsa. It won the most votes on the Doritos website.
There is some debate over whether we should be broadcasting our presence to potentially hostile aliens. But radio and TV transmissions have been leaking into space already for several decades.
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