What Should We Do When We Find Aliens? (Are There Rules?)

Are there any official government or scientific plans for the scenario where we discover intelligent life or more importantly, if intelligent life finds us?
Front view of antennas of the Allan Telescope Array, a radio telescope for combined radio astronomy and SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) research being built by the University of California at Berkeley, outside San Francisco. The first phase, consisting of 42 6-meter dish antennas shown here, was completed in 2007. Eventually it will have 350 antennas. This type of antenna is called an offset Gregorian design. The incoming radio waves are reflected by the large parabolic dish onto a secondary parabolic reflector in front of the dish, and then into a feed horn. A metal shroud along the bottom of the secondary reflector shields the antenna from ground noise. It covers the frequency range from 0.5 to 11.2 GHz. Image credit: Colby Gutierrez-Kraybill, CC BY 2.0

Front view of antennas of the Allan Telescope Array, a radio telescope for combined radio astronomy and SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) research being built by the University of California at Berkeley, outside San Francisco. The first phase, consisting of 42 6-meter dish antennas shown here, was completed in 2007. Eventually it will have 350 antennas. This type of antenna is called an offset Gregorian design. The incoming radio waves are reflected by the large parabolic dish onto a secondary parabolic reflector in front of the dish, and then into a feed horn. A metal shroud along the bottom of the secondary reflector shields the antenna from ground noise. It covers the frequency range from 0.5 to 11.2 GHz. Image credit: Colby Gutierrez-Kraybill, CC BY 2.0

Originally posted at Forbes!

There are, in fact! However, these tend to be more guidelines on what to do than actual rules, and aren’t binding in an international court of law.  There is a branch of law for dealing with outer space, called International Space Law, which are a set of rules that the UN has laid out and all UN member countries have agreed to abide by. It is a string of very sensible rules for behavior in space, like “do not put nuclear weapons in space”, “your country cannot claim a piece of space”, “you cannot build a military base on the moon”, and “space is for all countries”.

Most of the guidelines for what to do in case we find or are found by aliens have a similar set of instructions, whether it be found in the SETI Institution’s version, entitled “Protocols for an ETI Signal Detection” (ETI standing for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence), the “Declaration of Principles for Activities Following the Detection of Extraterrestrial Intelligence”, which has been signed off on by a whole slew of administrative bodies. But really, they’ve signed off on agreeing to be guided by the guidelines.

The guidelines go roughly like this: if you think you have found a signal from extraterrestrial life, please make extra, seriously, super-duper sure that what you think is an ET signal doesn’t have any other more plausible explanation. Given how much press the alien megastructures got as a possible explanation for the star KIC 8462852's bizarre dimming (which is certainly a weird signal from that particular star, but almost certainly not alien megastructures), I can only imagine the sort of media explosion and cultural whiplash we would have on our hands if we announced that we had discovered intelligent life.  This is a “be careful” initial guideline.

Dyson swarm in DONUT version, folding combo. Image credit: wikimedia user Arnero, public domain

Dyson swarm in DONUT version, folding combo. Image credit: wikimedia user Arnero, public domain

Secondly, pass what you think to be a detection to other scientists, and let them check your work.  This checking of your work may mean getting more data, more observations, or just someone else verifying that they can reproduce your numbers. (The recent LIGO press conferences was a great example of following this guideline - their paper was peer-reviewed and accepted before they made their announcement.) At this stage, please do not leak this to the media.  It may well be that what you have found is super interesting, but not aliens.  If a scientist immediately announced, “I found aliens”, and then it turned out that what they had actually found was something astrophysically bizarre, but not aliens, there is an instant loss of trust in that person.  This second stage is to make sure that at the very least, reliable numbers and information are announced.

Next: if the signal has not gone away and still looks like aliens after some serious checking, you should tell the Secretary General of the UN, and a whole string of scientific bodies, which will let the rest of the scientific community know. You should also swiftly tell the rest of the world.  But hey- if it was your data that did the discovering, you get the honor of hosting a very high-profile press conference, and will probably spend the next year and a half answering questions.

Publish your data. However you detected intelligent aliens, please tell other scientists so we can do more of it.  This means explaining what you did at conferences and probably making your data public.  Also, please put your data in as many places as possible.  The last thing we would want at this stage is to lose it.  Put it in 10 places. Put it everywhere.  Please do not lose the evidence of aliens to a hard drive failure.

If the aliens were detected on a particular frequency (say we heard a radio transmission of theirs), that frequency should probably be protected so we can keep listening without too much interference.  Radio quiet areas are pretty rare in the US, and a lot of things can cause radio waves (see for instance the peryton paper, which discovered that a bizarre chirp in the radio could be produced by one particularly well-placed microwave door being opened to stop the microwave).

Parkes 64m Radio Telescope "The Dish" at full extension to the ground. Image credit: wikimedia user Binarysequence, CC-BY-SA-3.0

Parkes 64m Radio Telescope "The Dish" at full extension to the ground. Image credit: wikimedia user Binarysequence, CC-BY-SA-3.0

And last in the guidelines, you do not get to write back to the aliens.  Not without getting the majority of the planet on board, anyhow- at that point, contacting aliens has an impact on the whole human race, not just science, and not just the country the scientist who discovered it lives in.  The decision of what to do next should be discussed by everyone.

But because these are only guidelines, if some private company happened to do the discovering, and disregarded all of the above rules, the way things sit currently, there would be no legal ramifications whatsoever.  They are, after all, only guidelines.  At the moment, it seems that any situation that might require them is still at least several decades away, though I would love to be wrong.

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Where are the aliens?

Where are the aliens? Do they exist?
Source

Source

They’re out there! They’re just really, really, really far away.

Think about it this way; we’re one planet around a relatively average star at no special location in our galaxy, at no special location in the universe. What makes us believe we’re the only form of intelligent life in this vast universe? The trouble lies in the vastness.

Astronomers traditionally tackle this question by means of the Drake Equation, which takes all the pieces we think need to align for life to evolve, and multiplies together all the probabilities that they’ll occur in the same place at the same time within our galaxy. In a simple form, it asks the following series of questions: From the number of stars in our galaxy, what fraction of those stars will have planets? On average, how many planets are at just the right distance from their star, when liquid water can exist at the surface? Of the planets with liquid water hanging around, how many of those should we expect to have any form of life, no matter how simple? What fraction of those planets with life will also have intelligent life? And what fraction of those intelligent life forms are still around now and potentially able to communicate with us?

There are at least 100 billion stars in our galaxy, and hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe.  Pretty much every star we’ve looked at in our galaxy has at least one planet, which means we’re dealing with an overwhelmingly large number of planets in the universe.  Our Earth went from ‘liquid surface water’ to 'life’ in a cosmic blink of an eye - that doesn’t seem to be the hard part.The tricky part is getting from bacteria to a species that contemplates the skies above.  Even if you’re extremely pessimistic about the fraction of planets that have any form of life, and pessimistic about the fraction of planets with intelligent life, the sheer number of planets out there dominates these calculations.  There simply has to be other life out there, and if not in our galaxy, in another. 

Here’s the sticking point: the galaxy is huge. It takes light 50,000 years to travel from the centre to the edge of the galaxy: 100,000 years to make it all the way across. And the distances between galaxies are even more extreme. Light from the Andromeda galaxy takes two and a half million years to reach us, and that’s our nearest neighbor. Two and a half million years ago, humans were only at homo habilis. We don’t have any record of modern humans from earlier than 200,000 years ago. Our first radio telescope was built all of 80 years ago.

We can do a few more rough calculations to figure out how bad the problem is. Let’s assume that you do your calculation and work out that by optimistic numbers, there should be 1,000 intelligent, communicable civilizations just in our galaxy. If those civilizations are randomly scattered around the galaxy, on average they’ll be separated by 2,800 light years. But maybe 1,000 is a little too optimistic. Say there are only 15 civilizations in our galaxy; now they’re separated by about 23,000 light years. If there’s only one civilization per galaxy, you’re back to separations of millions of light years. Communication between civilizations (even in the most optimistic of cases) would be effectively impossible.

No matter what, whatever forms of life exist out there will be as uniquely suited to their home planet and home star as we are to our own, and will assuredly look nothing like Hollywood’s favorite “little green men”.

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