If extraterrestrial life sent us a message tomorrow, how would humanity respond? According to researchers, we don't know yet — and that's a problem.
That's why, for the first time in 35 years, a team of policy experts and scientists have united to establish a set of alien-contact protocols for the entire world to follow in the event of a sudden encounter with E.T.
"Science fiction is awash with explorations of the impact on human society following discovery of, and even encounters with, life or intelligence elsewhere," John Elliot (opens in new tab), a computer scientist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, said in a statement (opens in new tab). Elliot is the coordinator of the University of St. Andrews' newly established SETI Detection Hub, the cross-disciplinary organization that will establish the new alien contact protocol.
According to Elliot, the new research group will "go beyond thinking about the impact on humanity" of a potential alien encounter and start focusing on how we should respond instead.
Currently, the only alien contact protocol (opens in new tab) that humans have was established by the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI) community in 1989. The protocol, which was last revised more than a decade ago, is vague when it comes to the international response to extraterrestrial communication; it mainly focuses on the importance of sharing discoveries with the public and broader scientific community. In the event of confirmed alien contact, the protocol's main practical tip for scientists is to seek instruction from the United Nations or another governing body. (What the United Nations should do is another open question.)
From finding traces of water (opens in new tab) on Mars to discovering potentially Earth-like exoplanets, advances in space exploration in recent decades have made the idea of life on other worlds more plausible. Yet despite more than a century of efforts (opens in new tab) to get in contact with these potential lifeforms, humans have yet to hear back.
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Rather than focusing on sending messages to aliens, the new SETI Detection Hub will scan signals for potential messages sent from alien lifeforms and will develop a framework for attaching meaning to those signals. They'll also create impact assessments; deliver reports that outline the implications of specific policies; and develop protocols and treatises for responding to hypothetical alien messengers.
"Will we ever get a message from E.T.? We don't know. We also don't know when this is going to happen,"" Elliot said. "But we do know that we cannot afford to be ill-prepared — scientifically, socially, and politically rudderless — for an event that could turn into reality as early as tomorrow."
While conspiracy theories (opens in new tab) about potential alien visitors to Earth have abounded recently, the U.S. Department of Defense filed a report this week claiming there's no evidence of extraterrestrial visitors (opens in new tab) in more than 140 cases of unidentified aerial phenomena (UAPs) reported by the U.S. military. Foreign spy drones and "airborne clutter," like weather balloons, are the far more common explanations for oddities in America's skies. At least, for now.
Originally published on Live Science.