Ready for Contact

Humans have searched for extraterrestrial life for more than a century. What will we do when we find it?

Movies, such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and conspiracy theorists insist we are not alone. (Everett Collection)
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Drake's work inspired people around the world to search for extraterrestrial intelligence. The foremost project, called the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI), is based in Mountain View, California. SETI has never found definitive evidence of intelligent life, but in 1977 an engineer working at a telescope in Ohio detected a mysterious 72-second pulse that originated a long way from Earth. Whether it came from aliens or, more likely, a black hole event was never determined. The rather long pulse—which prompted the engineer to write "Wow!" in the margin of a printout of the telescope's recordings—has not been repeated, but it has persuaded at least some radio astronomers to keep searching.

More recently, SETI scientists expanded their search beyond radio frequencies. "We're looking for bright flashes that last a billionth of a second or less," says Jill Tarter, director of the Center for SETI Research and the inspiration for the Jodie Foster character in the movie Contact. "As far as we know, this is something that a laser can do but that nature can't." SETI scientists figure that such a pulse would represent an intentional, high-tech, long-distance message: "evidence of somebody deliberately using a laser focused into a large telescope to create a detectable signal over the many light-years between stars," Tarter says.

The radio signal approach hasn't turned up much so far, and Tarter admits she doesn't know what the ideal frequencies might be. Even with the new search for laser flashes, the SETI scientists might be using incorrect technologies, but they still think the effort is worthwhile. As her colleague Seth Shostak says, "Columbus didn't wait for a 747 to get him across the Atlantic."

And though SETI scientists have yet to find evidence of extraterrestrials, they are well prepared for success. "Yes, we do have a plan," Tarter says. "It starts with champagne."

The plan comes from a document known as the "Declaration of Principles Concerning the Conduct of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence," which grew out of plans spawned in the years when NASA had an office dedicated to SETI research, before Congress cut off funding in 1993. The first step, according to the protocol, is verifying the find through independent confirmation by another observatory using different equipment and software. "We're a very attractive target for hoaxes," Tarter says. If the signal passes this first test—which could take days—and is confirmed, the SETI scientists would notify the secretary general of the United Nations. The scientists would also alert the international astronomy community by e-mails to members of the International Astronomical Union. And they would tell the public, probably by holding a press conference to announce the discovery to the world.

Our first contact with alien life, though, probably won't be with an intelligent, signal-beaming species. The most accessible source of potential non-Earthling life is Mars. NASA and its European counterparts are weighing options for a mission, at least 15 or 20 years from now, that would gather samples from the planet and return them to Earth.

A draft document states that any such samples would be treated with the same precautions as the Ebola virus, at least until they were deemed safe. But scientists must first develop a plan to protect this planet from anything they might find. "It would be really stupid to bring something back and then not know how to kill it if it was trying to eat us," says Catharine Conley, whose title is NASA's Planetary Protection Officer. (Conley says she has only the second-coolest title in NASA history; there once was a "Director, Universe.")

Conley envisions a scenario in which the research on potential alien life is conducted in front of cameras hooked up to the Internet. "The expectation is that none of this will be done in secrecy," she says. "We want people to be interested." That's probably not going to be a problem. It "would be a discovery equivalent to those made by some of the great names in history," says John Billingham, former head of NASA's SETI program.

And how would the world react to a discovery announce­ment? "Your guess is as good as mine," Tarter says.

Paul Davies, an astrobiologist at Arizona State University, heads up the SETI Post-Detection Taskgroup, a collection of scientists, journalists, lawyers, science fiction writers and philosophers. Their job is to advise relevant parties—other scientists, governments, the United Nations—about what to do if a SETI signal or any "putative evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence" were detected. While waiting for a contact, the group deliberates about what the consequences might be. While a discovery of microscopic life on another body in our solar system would be "of profound significance, which would change our worldview," Davies says, "it's not one of these things that is going to be disruptive to society." But the discovery of a signal from intelligent extraterrestrials could lead to "mayhem." Billingham agrees. "Some people will think that this is a natural event in the continuing work on scientific questions," he says, and others will ask, in panic, "What do we do now?"

About Sarah Zielinski
Sarah Zielinski

Sarah Zielinski is an award-winning science writer and editor. She is a contributing writer in science for and blogs at Wild Things, which appears on Science News.

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