We've been so busy wondering how we'll find aliens that we never stopped to consider what we'll do if we actually encounter them. How does an alien discovery get communicated to the media? Who's responsible to craft a response?
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Team: Fraser Cain - @fcain / firstname.lastname@example.org
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Time to talk about my favorite topic: aliens.
We’ve covered the Fermi Paradox many times over several episodes of the Guide to Space. This is the idea that the Universe is huge, and old, and the ingredients of life are everywhere. Life could and should have have appeared many times across the galaxy, but it’s really strange that we haven’t found any evidence for them yet.
We’ve also talked about how we as a species have gone looking for aliens. How we’re searching the sky for signals from their alien communications. How the next generation of space and ground-based telescopes will let us directly image the atmospheres of extrasolar planets. If we see large quantities of oxygen, or other chemicals that shouldn’t be around, it’s a good indication there’s life on their planet.
We’ve even talked about how aliens could use that technique on us. We’ve been sending our radio and television signals out into space for the last few decades. Who knows what crazy things they think about our “historical documents”? But Earth life itself has been broadcasting our existence for hundreds of millions of years, since the first plankton started filling our atmosphere with oxygen. A distant civilization could be analyzing our atmosphere and know exactly when we entered the industrial age.
But what we haven’t talked about, the space elephant in the room, if you will, is what we’ll do if we actually make contact. What are we going to say to each other? And what will happen if the aliens show up?
Although there’s no official protocol on talking to aliens, scientists and research institutions have been puzzling out the best way we might communicate for quite a while.
Perhaps the best example is the SETI Institute, the US-based research group who have dedicated radio telescopes scanning the skies for messages from space.
Let’s imagine you’re a SETI researcher, and you’re browsing last night’s logs and you see what looks like a message. Maybe it’s instructions to build some kind of dimensional portal, or a recipe book.
Whatever you do, don’t try out the recipes.
Instead, you need to make absolutely sure you’re not dealing with some kind of natural phenomenon. Then you need to reach out to other researchers and get them to confirm the signal.
If they agree it’s aliens, then you need to inform the International Astronomical Union and other international groups, like the United Nations, Committee on Space Research, etc.
Unless they’ve got some good reason to stop you, it’s time to announce the discovery to the worldwide media. You made the discovery, you get to break the news to the world.
At this point, of course, the entire world is going to freak right out.
Whatever you do, however, you have to resist the urge to send back a message or build that dimensional portal, no matter how much you think you understand the science.
Instead, let an international committee mull it over while you stockpile supplies in a secret alien proof bunker in the desert.
In a second, we’re going to talk about how that international committee is going to figure out what to say to a terrifying and overwhelmingly powerful space empire. But first, I’d like to thank Jabbar Nodehi, Zach Kanzler, John Marshall, and the rest of our 643 patrons for their generous support. If you love what we’re doing and want to help out, head over to patreon.com/universetoday.
What kind of message should we actually craft to our new alien penpals? Will we become fast friends, jump starting our own technological progress, or will we insult them by accident?
In 2000, and international group of SETI researchers including the famous Jill Tarter devised The Rio Scale. It really easy to use, and there’s even a fun online calculator.
Step 1, figure out the class of phenomenon. Is it a message sent directly to Earth, expecting a reply? Or did we merely find some alien artifact or old timey Dyson sphere orbiting a nearby star?
Step 2, how verifiable is the discovery? Are we talking ongoing signals received by SETI researchers, or a hint in some old data that’s impossible to confirm?