René Heller's SETI Decrypt Challenge

In summary: If you are still considering giving the decoding a try, here are a few things to think about.1. Make a list of things you know about binary numbers.2. Make a list of things you know about images.3. Make a list of things you know about communication.4. Make a list of things you know about mathematics.5. Make a list of things you know about physics.6. Make a list of things you know about space.7. Make a list of things you know about extraterrestrial life.8. Make a list of things you know about the universe.9. Make a list of things you know about yourself.
  • #1


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Original source:

Instructions (copied and pasted from original source):

This is a call for a fun scientific challenge.

Suppose a telescope on Earth receives a series of pulses from a fixed, unresolved source beyond the solar system. The source is a star about 50 light years from Earth. The pulses are in the form of short/long signals and they are received in a very narrow band around an electromagnetic frequency of 452.12919 MHz. A computer algorithm identifies the artificial nature of the pulses. It turns out the pulses carry a message. The pulses signify binary digits. Suppose further that you were, by whatsoever reason, put in charge of decoding this message.

If you successfully decrypted the message, you should be able to answer the following questions:

1. What is the typical body height of our interstellar counterparts?
2. What is their typical lifetime?
3. What is the scale of the devices they used to submit their message?
4. Since when have they been communicating interstellar?
5. What kind of object do they live on?
6. How old is their stellar system?

These are the rules.

1. No restrictions on collaborations.
2. Open discussion (social networks etc.) of possible solutions strongly encouraged.
3. 3 hints to the solutions can be offered as per request.
4. Send your solutions to me via e-mail (, twitter (@DrReneHeller) or facebook (DrReneHeller). Human-readable format and the format of the message are allowed.
5. On 3 June 2016, a list of the successful SETI crackers (in chronological order) will be released.UPDATE 6 May 2016:
This call generated an e-mail storm on me. I kindly ask you for your understanding that I will restrict replies via e-mail to a minimum. Correct submissions will, of course, be acknowledged.UPDATE 7 May 2016
E-mail traffic is still overwhelming. From now on, I will not be able to give additional hints and will only respond to correct (or very creative) solutions via e-mail in English or German.

These are the three hints mentioned in the rules.

1. The number of bits (0 or 1) is 1902341. This is a product o the prime numbers 7, 359, and 757.

2. The message is the black/white pixel map of an image.

3. The image shows 7 pictures or pages. As a sanity check, you will be able to recover the duration of the travel time (50 years) from page 4.

Link to extraterrestrial message:
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  • #2
I followed the link. This video sums up my feelings:

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  • #3
The first step would be to plot just the 1's on a 7359x757 grid.
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Megaquark said:
I followed the link. This video sums up my feelings:

Hee hee. o0)

It's actually not too terribly difficult. It took me a few hours to decode the message (I did it last Thursday evening). [Edit: although I should add that I've I a lot of practice with binary numbers. That certainly didn't hurt.]

I'd like to collaborate more on this, but I've already submitted my solution to René Heller and received a confirmation about it. So I'm hesitant to say too much more about it until June 3rd.

Vanadium 50 said:
The first step would be to plot just the 1's on a 7359x757 grid.

You might wish to hold off on finalizing your grid dimensions until you have a bit more to go on.

But without giving much away, display the data (1s and 0s) in your browser and then play around with resizing your browser's width. You may find it useful reduce the font size (in Firefox you can change the font size by pressing Ctrl and adjusting the mouse wheel).
Play around with that for a bit. :wink: [Edit: there's more to the solution than that, but that might send you off on a good start.]
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  • #5
collinsmark said:
You might wish to hold off on finalizing your grid dimensions until you have a bit more to go on.

I did say first step, didn't I?
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So far, 25 teams worldwide have decoded the message (per update from original link).


I love trying to decode messages such as these. :woot: If you are still considering giving the decoding a try, here are a few things to think about. (This list is not specific to René Heller's particular message, but rather hypothetical messages like it, in general.)

  • The message (or a message such as this) is intentionally made to be decoded easily while making as few assumptions as reasonably possible. The message wants to be decoded. A well designed message contains information within itself that helps you decode it, without assuming that you know anything about how to decode messages. (In other words, little to nothing is a priori.)
  • You shouldn't have to know too much about mathematics and/or physics to be able to decode the message. Most of what you need to know should be given to you within the message.
  • The message will likely contain one or more primers to aid in your understanding of the message's format. Look for these. They may be a simple patterns or something very simple which you can then build on. Baby steps. One primer might build on another.
  • Invariably, there will be some small assumptions that the creator of the message must make. For example, the message might assume that the recipient knows how to count (understands natural numbers). Or there may be the assumption that the recipient understands the concept of prime numbers (although prime numbers have been known to occur naturally in nature [e.g., cicada life-cycles], their occurrence in nature is rare. Prime numbers are generally thought to be a good indication of intelligence).
  • Any primer involving physics (in a good message) will relate to something that is assumed to be the same here as it is everywhere else. Example candidates might include, a) spectral lines of hydrogen, b) the constant speed of light in a vacuum, c) the number of valance electrons in successively larger elements, d) Planck scales, e) some inherit characteristic of of the physically measurable message transmission itself, etc. Something of this nature might be used in part to establish an agreed upon system of units, later to be used to communicate things such as distances and lengths of time.
Good luck! :smile:
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Update: 39 "teams" have decoded the message so far.


  • #8
Update: up to 47 "teams" have now decoded the message (according to Heller's recent tweet), now including Australia, Russia, and and a junior high-school student (in Morehead Kentucky).

1. What is René Heller's SETI Decrypt Challenge?

The SETI Decrypt Challenge is a scientific competition created by René Heller, an astrophysicist at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research. It challenges participants to decrypt a hypothetical message from an extraterrestrial civilization using their knowledge of physics and mathematics.

2. How does the challenge work?

The challenge involves analyzing a series of encrypted messages that simulate a communication from an alien civilization. Participants must use their scientific knowledge and problem-solving skills to decipher the messages and uncover their meaning.

3. Who can participate in the challenge?

The challenge is open to anyone with a background in science, particularly in fields such as physics, mathematics, and computer science. It is also open to students, researchers, and science enthusiasts from all over the world.

4. What is the purpose of the challenge?

The purpose of the challenge is to promote scientific thinking and problem-solving skills, as well as to encourage interest in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. It also serves as a way to engage the public in scientific research and discovery.

5. Are there any prizes for winning the challenge?

Yes, there are cash prizes for the top three winners, with the first prize being 1000 euros. In addition, winners will have their names and solutions published in a scientific journal, and they will have the opportunity to present their findings at a scientific conference.

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