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The alien hunters of Elite: Dangerous

Inside the fascinating group effort to unravel the mysteries of the universe.

First contact was made January 2017.

There are a group of Elite: Dangerous players who do not care for shooting other ships, mining for materials or trading precious resources. This group focuses on a more scientific pursuit: hunting aliens. Aliens that aren't even in the game yet.

Aliens have so far failed to turn up in Frontier's space game, but clues as to their inevitable arrival have been drip fed into the universe over the last 18 months. And for the last 18 months the Canonn, one of the largest, most dedicated groups of Elite: Dangerous players there is, has sought to unravel the mysteries of its virtual universe.

Last week, one Canonn member made the most significant discovery yet: an alien ruin. But the rush to make sense of the find has posed more questions than answers: this does not look like any of the alien objects so far seen in the game. This looks like, something else...

Now, the Canonn is abuzz with excitement. The recent release of the Guardians 2.2 update has re-energised its chief alien hunters, and its top scientists are trying to work out what happens next. If the Thargoids, Elite's long-running alien race, are indeed coming, then how will players respond? And if the Thargoids decimate humanity, as expected, how will humanity fight back? This recently-discovered ruin may hold the key.

It's exciting times inside the Canonn, then. But the discovery of the alien ruin is just the latest development in what has been a concerted, 18 months effort. For many, the hunt for aliens in Elite: Dangerous has been a long and winding road. Or should that be wormhole. There are many stories to tell.

It began with a post on the Elite: Dangerous forum, published back in April 2015. A Commander called "Dr Arcanonn" had read a question and answer session with Frontier boss David Braben, in which he was asked it the game would eventually feature things to discover that were not stellar bodies.

His answer: it already does.

His interest piqued, Dr Arcanonn posted on the Elite: Dangerous forum to say that Braben's comment meant the game had to feature something new, something hidden. Something alien? That post sparked what is now dubbed "the Threadnaught", a gargantuan online discussion of over 100,000 posts. The Threadnaught is now in its ninth incarnation. At one point, it had grown so large it broke Frontier's website.

Dr Arcanonn realised there were more than a few players who thought along the same lines as he did - that is, there were potentially thousands of Elite: Dangerous players interested in mystery-solving. This is how the Canonn came to be.

Cover image for YouTube video

The Canonn, a name derived from "Dr Arcanonn", is currently home to 1543 people who have registered on its website, but well over 2000 players have contributed to the Threadnaught. The Canonn website is in full role-play mode. It's dubbed an Interstellar Research Group, or, "the home of science in the galaxy". The Canonn was founded, according to the website, in April 3301. It operates out of Thompson Dock, Varati.

Here, thousands of Elite: Dangerous players work together - and sometimes alone - to test theories, follow blind alleys and analyse mysterious objects. But while the Canonn seems, on the face of it, to be a serious business, its Council - a group of 10 reliable elite players handpicked by Dr Arcanonn to manage to chaos - works with its tongue set firmly in its cheek.

"Our extreme focus and diligence can be attributed to our diet of biscuits, whisky and a penchant for wearing tin foil hats," the website reads. "We take our Science seriously, but we do it without covering ourselves in chalkdust."

There are mysterious barnacles dotted around the Elite: Dangerous universe.

The Canonn's work kicked off with the infamous "Unknown Artefacts" discovery. It was this search, which occurred just a couple of months after Dr Arcanonn's initial forum post, that put the Canonn on the galaxy map.

Commander Red Wizzard, Canonn Councillor and self-styled "group historian", was the first player in the Threadnaught to recover an Unknown Artefact.

At the time, the UAs, as they're called, had to be recovered from heavily defended convoys that were extremely rare. Not only did Red Wizzard find one of these convoys, he managed to do enough damage to the T-9 is was defending to force it to drop the UA. While under fire, Red Wizzard scooped up the UA and escaped with just 30 per cent hull integrity left on his Python.

"About 30 commanders from the thread got together to take a look and have a listen that night which was a great experience," Red Wizzard tells Eurogamer. "It was the first time I'd seen so many players in one place."

One of those 30 commanders was was Dr Arcanonn. He turned up 15 minutes after Red Wizzard's discovery for what he calls an in-game photoshoot.

This was significant because it vindicated much of what Dr Arcanonn had been saying about Elite: Dangerous in its forum. "I had put myself on the line," he says, "insisting these things were real and relevant and that they were in-game. There were a lot of naysayers. When a lot of people start to join in your lunacy, you feel a little bit responsible and hope this is actually going somewhere."

Dr Arcanonn looks back on the discovery with huge pride.

"That was a crowning moment in my gaming career," he says. "Elite is not to everybody's tastes. It's not very accessible. It's very hard to play. A lot of people can't even launch when they first get in the game. There's a very brutal, steep learning curve. It's the opposite of instant gratification gaming. But a totally unique type of gameplay."

One of the Unknown Artefacts.

Red Wizzard's "Unknown Artefacts" discovery started a journey that's lasted over a year and a half. It turns out, there were more than a few Unknown Artefacts dotted around the universe.

Red Wizzard's second discovery was of the "UA shell". The Elite: Dangerous 1.3 update brought with it a major change that meant UAs could be found quickly via jumping into a "UA Strong Signal Source". Red Wizzard began logging which systems players had found them in, and the data told him the catchment area was primarily a dozen or so systems between the bubble and Merope.

"While looking at the data I realised that all the systems were between 135 and 150 light years of Merope, and so theorised that all systems at that distance would have UAs," he says. "So UAs could now be found in thousands of systems that formed a spherical shell around Merope."

The Canonn conducted extensive testing. "We've done just about everything imaginable with it," Dr Arcanonn says. Then, some help: Elite: Dangerous executive producer Michael Brookes with a cryptic post in the Threadnaught: "Have you listened to them?"

"That started a bit of a riot," Dr Arcanonn says. The Canonn discovered Morse code embedded in the audio produced by the UA, then decoded that signal into a line drawing of players' ships.

And then the floodgates opened. Over the course of the year, more mysterious objects were found, from odd-looking barnacles to unknown probes.

The established theory is that these objects are Thargoid in nature. They're organic, and everything players know of the alien race suggests an organic look and feel to them. In previous Elite games they were an insectoid alien race who came from outside of known space. They're considered hostile and aggressive, and have been described as "relentless killing machines". The image below shows off a Thargoid space ship taken from 1995's Frontier: First Encounters.

The Thargoids are coming, hopefully with better graphics.

Back in July 2016, Eurogamer reported on the Canonn's discovery of mysterious probes. When scanned, these probes emitted an electromagnetic pulse that temporarily incapacitated the scanning ship. This pulse was followed by a brief burst of sound similar to the "chittering" produced by the "Unknown Artefacts", which are also considered alien in nature.

The video, below, shows one such encounter.

Cover image for YouTube videoThe Unknown Probe shut down my ships! And Talked...

The Canonn analysed this pulse and discovered an encrypted image, below.

The unknown probe sound decoded.

This image, players believe, depicts interstellar bodies, which could mean only one thing: the Thargoids are coming.

And, just before the launch of Elite: Dangerous 2.2, the Canonn decrypted a series of clues that lead to an alien crash site. This is thought to house the wreck of a Thargoid scout ship.

Our first look at a Thargoid scout vessel?

Now, onto the most significant development in the hunt for aliens since the launch of Elite: Dangerous: the discovery of alien ruins.

On Tuesday, 25th October, Frontier launched Elite: Dangerous 2.2 and put out a trailer teasing an alien ruin. The teaser was brief (check it out at the 1.23 mark):

Cover image for YouTube videoThe Guardians - Elite Dangerous: Horizons

It didn't take long for one member of the Canonn, a player who goes by the name xDeath, to work out where to find the ruin. By triangulating the planet based on a few frames of stars and nebulae from the trailer, xDeath knew which system to head for. He took off in his Cobra, painted in the colours of his beloved Canada.

Here's how xDeath worked out where to look: he triangulated the position of the system using the position of Andromeda, Pleiades Nebula, phakt and epsilon columbae, as they were seen in the trailer.

He then located the planet by matching the craters as seen on the moon in the tower shot.

He then located the ruins by picking the most interesting looking area and doing a fly by.

(Here's the galactic address of the alien ruin, if you're interested: SYNUEFE XR-H D11-102, Planet 1B. And if you're after the house name, here goes: Coordinates -31.7 by -128.9.)

xDeath documented his find on Reddit, the Elite: Dangerous forum and, of course, the Canonn website, and the community lit up. xDeath had taken less than 24 hours to find the ruins. Clearly, Frontier had intended for the mystery to last significantly longer.

Overnight, xDeath had become the most famous Elite: Dangerous player in the world. The alien ruin discovery was his first meaningful contribution as a Canonn member.

"It was a really exciting, surreal experience," he tells Eurogamer. "My hands were shaking as I pulled into land."

It was Elite: Dangerous' moon landing. It was xDeath taking a giant leap for the Canonn, planting a virtual Canadian flag in the virtual ground.

Cover image for YouTube video

"They'd released a teaser trailer, and underestimated the Canonn's ability to navigate by stars, to take a screenshot from a planet's surface and look at the way the constellations looked, to cross-reference that with a brown dwarf that was in the shot, and then use the galaxy map to narrow down the location," Dr Arcanonn enthused.

"It took a handful of hours. It was found by 4am."

The speed with which the Canonn discovered the ruins is perhaps unsurprising when you consider the group has so much experience making sense of Frontier's teases and in-game hints.

"If they give us the slightest clue, because we've got such a large player base with a lot of bright people - brighter than me - once you get that hive mind and you're committed to a puzzle, we can tear up content fairly quickly - unfortunately for them," Dr Arcanonn says.

"But to be fair to them, the new discovery is immensely complex."

Given the complexity of the latest puzzle, you'd expect xDeath has some professional scientific credentials in real life. He does not, he says. "Pattern recognition is a strength I have," he says. "I thought it was a strength everyone had."

He is, however, a huge science fiction fan, particularly of Star Trek, so perhaps it comes as no surprise that the Canonn's mission to explore strange new worlds and to seek out new life appeals to him.

Dr Arcanonn, too, does not have a scientific background in real life, but he's a fan of the science of space.

And what about Red Wizzard, who made the Canonn's first major discovery? He's a software developer from New Zealand with a masters degree in computer science and maths. "So I don't really have a scientific background (other than some first year university physics and chemistry)," he says, "though I've always had an interest in science. I also have a general interest in puzzles and an analytical mind so that does help."

The Canonn is made up of a huge number of players, and so there's a huge skill-set available to the "hivemind". In recent months audio engineers and those with sonic analysis software have come to the fore (the probe discovery was found to have an image hidden in its soundwaves).

But perhaps a new skill-set is required for what's next. The hunt for aliens has now moved on to the analysis of the ruins themselves. The site has what xDeath describes as a weird pattern when viewed from above. Is it a star map? That's one theory currently banded about.

Elite Dangerous players have discovered a mysterious relic, but what does it do?

Then there are the towers. xDeath discovered he could shoot away some of the ancient pillars with his ship's weapon, causing items to fall down onto the ground. There are a number of items to collect: a tablet, a totem, an urn, a casket and an orb. The orb is interesting - it's been dubbed the D20 by the Canonn because it looks like a D20.

There's more: players found an ancient relic inside an ancient obelisk. This relic is in fact a crystal that pulses with, as the game calls it, an "ethereal type of energy". Nobody knows what this does. Yet.

The Canonn has tried bringing these objects to the other mysterious sites across the galaxy to see if there is any interaction. Nohing. But there is a theory: this ruin site is not of the Thargoids. It is, rather, of a third alien race.

There is evidence to back up the theory. The objects found at the site are mechanical in nature. All other mysterious objects discovered prior are organic. Plus, when players scanned the glowing obelisks they found data relating to the Engineers. Now, the Engineers are currently in the game, but none of the objects found at the site work with them. So, the Canonn believes a new set of Engineers will eventually turn up to make use of these objects, perhaps helping players upgrade their ships so they can fend off, yep, you guessed it, the Thargoids.

"Everybody presumes the Guardians in the title refers to the ship-launched fighters," Dr Arcanonn says.

"We've never presumed that. We presume it refers to an ancient - possibly extinct alien race known as the Guardians. The current thinking is we've found an archaeological site of theirs. It's still active in that it still has power to some degree, even though it's a ruin."

Elite: Dangerous' fictitious universe is made up of competing factions. Humanity is, in essence, at war. But the Canonn was conceived as a cross-party organisation, so it includes members who are at war with each other but put aside their differences for the greater good.

This could prove crucial in the months ahead.

"We have always suspected that something nasty is coming from outside of human space, and it poses a lot of danger," Dr Arcanonn says.

"We're trying to unite humanity against the coming threat. And now it's becoming clear there is a coming threat and we're not all crazy.

"We're fairly confident the Thargoids are coming, and we're fairly confident it's not going to go well, especially as we've been told the players will decide what happens when we meet the Thargoids," Dr Arcanonn says.

"The player base will shoot at the Thargoids. That's pretty much nailed on. When we discovered the ruins the night before last, players turned up and started shooting the hell out of everybody.

"All walks of life and all inclinations are involved in Elite. And some are anarchists.

"So war with the Thargoids is inevitable. They're going to be scary. So our suspicion at the moment is the Guardian technology is the key to defeating the Thargoids. Some of the items that have been found at the ruin are possibly Engineer components. And some of the scans you can get from the beacons at the ruins are, in their description, mentioned as Engineer components.

"Whether there are new human Engineers coming who can do things with the unknown alien race stuff we're now acquiring, or whether there's going to be be another treasure hunt? For all we know the ruin we've discovered could be a map. Maybe it will lead to more machinery elsewhere we can take the resources to and modify our ships and discover new technologies.

"We suspect strongly that the Thargoids are going to wipe the floor with humanity, and we'll need this technology to stand up to them."

The Canonn is more of a loose organisation of fellow-minded players than a structured group. While Dr Arcanonn is its leader, or, as he calls himself, "Founder, Lead Scientist and Galaxy renowned biscuit connoisseur of the Canonn Interstellar Research", it is the Council that pulls the strings. But even they have little control over proceedings as the cacophony of insane notions grows ever louder.

"It's not that the Council dictates this is the theory we're going to search out," Dr Arcanonn says. "It's more of a complete free-for-all. There are a lot of in-jokes about the wearing of tinfoil hats and conspiracy theories."

But everyone in the group enjoys the mystery, the quest for answers, and the hunt for aliens.

And the Canonn is a hit. It's well known within the Elite community, and at one point Dr Arcanonn received fan mail. There was even a period when some thought he was a work of fiction, a construct built by Frontier to push the Thargoid narrative. This was untrue, of course. Dr Arcanonn tells Eurogamer real life events meant he had to leave Elite behind for a few months. "I took it as a great compliment that people started to suggest I was fictitious haha," he says.

Frontier sparked the hunt for an alien crash site when it embedded code into a part of a video interview with David Braben.

The Threadnaught continues its inexorable march through the universe, the forum swells with each discovery, and Frontier is clearly having fun with its most devoted fans. Michael Brookes is an honorary member of the Canonn, and members suspect he spends a lot of time monitoring its posts.

"I'm 42 now," Dr Arcanonn says. "I've been gaming since I was 15 back on early dial-up versions of the internet. This is the first time I've ever encountered a game where the playerbase has had such a huge part in the evolution of what they've added to the game. They had no idea the reaction to the mystery elements of the Elite universe would have. The way things have panned out, they're basically pandering to our tastes and setting us ever more complex puzzles.

"A lot of Canonn Commanders don't play the game the way other Commanders play the game. They spend their entire time not shooting things, not trading things. They're out hunting down these mysteries. There's a game within a game there."

As the alien hunters of Elite: Dangerous continue their mission, perhaps the most important mystery of all remains unsolved.

What's with the obsession over biscuits?

"That's classified."