One of the questions I ask in The Crying of Ross 128 is: will we be ready if and when an alien life form contacts us?
Different books and films have imagined what first contact looks like. Close Encounters of the Third Kind showed us friendly alien abductions. Carl Sagan’s Contact was about building a special ship to meet them. Alien Nation showed us struggling to co-exist with lizard-type creatures, and Independence Day can be summed up in that one famous line, “Let’s nuke ‘em . . . let’s nuke the bastards.”
Taking Hollywood out of the discussion for a moment, is there any kind of formal terran code to follow if one day we hear a distant alien signal? Well, in the 1980s, the UN actually came up with a set of protocols. These were guidelines only and developed to help the US and the Soviet Union share information. For example, if you hear a weird signal from space, this is how you should share it so others can help figure it out.
Then, the International Academy of Astronautics developed protocols in the 1990s again focusing on post-detection protocols. The UN took another run at these in the 2010s. The problem, though, is these alien post-detection protocols are guidelines only and are not enforceable. So if and when an extra-terrestrial contacts us or is detected, anyone anywhere could essentially do whatever they want to connect with them, irrespective of whether they should.
Two Sides of the Alien Post-Detection Argument
One group of scientists believes that whenever we do hear an alien signal, we should share it with everyone immediately. The idea being that more people working on figuring out what the signal means, the better. This would naturally increase the likelihood that we’d learn about the signal’s origin sooner rather than later, and can then take whatever next steps are appropriate.
But another group is more like Hold The Phone! Why would we want to telegraph where we are to some potentially evil-minded bug-eyed monster? The thinking here is: let’s keep this signal quiet, work on it in isolation until we figure out what it means, and then determine whether we should respond or not. The last thing we should be doing, so the argument goes, is to advertise where we are.
The bottom line, though, is no consistent, enforceable protocols exist for how to deal with alien first contact. The truth is, there may be millions of signals coming our way right now and we’re just not capable of detecting them either because we don’t understand the full breadth and depth of propagation physics behind them, or we simply can’t recognize their patterns in any discernible way.
This much is true, though: for me, it’s not a question of if we’ll make contact one day . . . it’s a question of when. And if we’re smart, we’ll figure out how to handle that day now.
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Hi, I'm David. I'm a science fiction writer, lover of Star Trek, fascinated by alien contact, galactic space battles, and near future dystopia. Want to know the darker details? Click here.
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