[dropcap]F[/dropcap]or decades we’ve been sending signals – deliberate and accidental – into space. But what is the plan if one day an alien were to reply?
If we ever detect signs of intelligent alien life, the people likely to be on the receiving end of a cosmic signal are the scientists of Seti, aka Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.
This loose band of a couple of dozen researchers around the world doggedly listens to the cosmos in the hopes of catching alien communications. It’s often in the face of scant funding and even ridicule.
They watch signals coming from the world’s largest radio telescopes, looking for anything unusual, or even the flashes of laser “lighthouses” designed to catch our attention.
Seti started as one man using one telescope dish in 1959. Today computers are used to sift through the cosmic radio traffic, flagging up to astronomers any potential calls from extraterrestrial life.
But what might happen if one of those computers found a bona fide alien phone call?
Conspiracy theorists will argue there would be a government cover-up. Even more nervous types might say there would be global upheaval.
Seth Shostak, the Seti Institute‘s principal astronomer, says both groups should calm down.
“The idea that governments would keep this quiet because otherwise the public would go nuts, is nuts. History shows that’s not what happens.
“In the early 1900s, there were claims that were canals on Mars – a vast hydraulic civilisation just 50m km from Earth. The average guy in the street said ‘well, I guess there are Martians’ – they didn’t panic.”
The first job if the computers flag up an interesting signal is to get it confirmed by other telescopes around the world – this would take the better part of a week.
“In all that time, you can be sure people are emailing boyfriends and girlfriends, writing on their blogs… the word will be out there.”
So news of alien contact may reach most people via a tweet from a Seti astronomer.
A 1997 “false alarm” signal showed the likely reaction – and the futility of any cover-up attempts.
“We were watching this signal all day and all night, waiting for somebody from ‘officialdom’, whatever officialdom is, to call up,” Shostak says. “Even local politicians didn’t call up, let alone the federal government. The only people that were interested were the media.”
Surely there’s an action plan in a red binder somewhere, detailing which international bodies to inform?
Not so. “The protocol is simply to announce it,” Shostak says. And then the policies for a chain of information, or command over the situation? “There are no such policies, and I don’t think you could enforce them anyway.”
The United Nations has a small outfit in Vienna called the Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), and Seti scientists have tried down the years with little success to work with it to fill that notional red binder with plans. Asked what might happen if an alien message arrives, UNOOSA replies that their current mandate “does not include any issues regarding the question you pose”.
So planning is left to people such as Paul Davies of the Beyond Center at Arizona State University, who heads up the the Seti Post-detection Taskgroup. But we don’t know what kind of information – if any – an incoming signal might contain. And decoding the signal could take years, or decades.
But what might it say? It could just be a beacon, saying