What lies beyond our planet's boundaries? The existence of extraterrestrial intelligence has been a subject of mathematical inquiry, while the absence of communication with alien life forms has spawned a paradox. Yet, let's pose a different query: What unfolds if we were to receive a message from intelligent life beyond Earth? Strangely, no government has officially endorsed a post-detection policy. When questioned about how they'd handle confirmation of extraterrestrial communication, the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs stated that it's beyond their purview. Are we unprepared, then? Could chaos ensue? While such scenarios seem improbable, the way we ready ourselves for an encounter with beings from beyond our world is vital, despite the remote likelihood.
Historically, we've acted as though alien life might exist. Concerns about back contamination arose when man-made objects returning from space potentially carried unknown alien life forms, including viruses and bacteria that could jeopardize life on Earth. This was a genuine worry during early lunar missions. When Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin returned from the Moon, they weren't greeted by their families and parades. Instead, they were sealed in biological isolation suits and transported to a quarantine facility in Houston, Texas, for three weeks. While the practice ended with Apollo 15, forward contamination was a persistent concern. When NASA sent the Galileo spacecraft to study Jupiter and its moons, it wasn't sterilized, prompting NASA to steer Galileo into Jupiter to prevent any potential Earth life from contaminating an alien biosphere.
In the past, protocols and decisions have been made under the assumption that aliens could exist. Organizations like SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) actively listen for signals from technologically advanced civilizations capable of sending radio signals. They are prepared. The SETI committee of the International Academy of Astronautics formulated a declaration of principles concerning actions to take upon detecting extraterrestrial intelligence, although no government has officially adopted these recommendations. Seth Shostak of SETI explained that, due to the slow process of signal verification and the rapid pace of media coverage, the public would likely hear about a possible detection before it's confirmed. In the midst of media speculation, excitement, and public panic, the recommended course of action would likely follow SETI's guidelines.
If an extraterrestrial message were confirmed, the discoverer(s) would continue evaluating its credibility and inform all relevant parties according to SETI's declaration. The Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams would be notified to inform global observers, and the secretary-general of the United Nations would be informed, as stipulated by the treaty on principles governing activities in outer space. Initial official information would likely be conveyed using the Rio Scale, which gauges the significance of evidence of extraterrestrial life, helping manage public reactions. Leading figures like Mazlan Othman, director at the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, and Paul Davies, chairman of SETI's post-detection task force, might assume ambassadorial roles in potential Earth-alien interactions.
As for our response to an extraterrestrial message, suggestions range from transmitting mathematical constants like Pi or the Fibonacci sequence to maintaining silence, influenced by concerns that contact could be perilous, akin to Christopher Columbus's arrival in the Americas. These scenarios illustrate that how we envision contact with aliens sheds light on our own ambitions and anxieties. Anthropologist Katherine Denny calls this "jetsonsing," projecting modern human behaviors and desires onto advanced extraterrestrial beings.
Jetsonsing can lead to diverse interpretations: some believe aliens may pose a threat due to humanity's historical interactions with new cultures, while others imagine benevolent beings offering assistance, reflecting our perceived needs. The view from space, while appearing peaceful, still shows Earth's divisions, whether it's the East-West German border or the lit-up border between India and Pakistan, revealing our struggles and lack of trust. Contemplating how aliens might interpret and communicate with us, and how we should respond, offers valuable insights into our own condition, making our earthly conflicts more conspicuous. This, ultimately, is the essence of imagination.
G. K. Chesterton once said that imagination's role is not merely to render strange things familiar but to make familiar things strange. And as always, thanks for reading!