by Elizabeth Howell April 30, 2018 (space.com)
• If aliens reach out to us, what would happen first? Would it cause a panic, as when the H.G. Wells novel “War of the Worlds” played on the CBS Radio system across the United States? Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) researcher Duncan Forgan thinks that the “War of the Worlds” broadcast may be instructive as SETI scientists worldwide update their “first contact” protocols. The International Academy of Astronautics SETI Permanent Committee created a post-ET detection protocol in 1989 which was updated in 2010. The new update should be finished in a few years, says Forgan.
• Scientists assume alien contact would happen through a signal purposely sent toward Earth. The signal would be verified by multiple observatories, and once confirmed it would be announce this to the world at a press conference. Everyone in the project would need to be sworn to secrecy during the verification period. But in this day and age, it would likely be leaked. In such a case, scientists would inform the public on the degree of likelihood that the alien contact is “real.”
• If aliens physically arrived here, these “first contact” protocols likely would be useless as the ET beings would do whatever they liked. The manner in which the ET’s presented themselves to the planet would be up to them.
• The first modern SETI experiment searching for an extraterrestrial ‘signal’ took place in 1960. Under Project Ozma, Cornell University astronomer Frank Drake pointed a radio telescope (located at Green Bank, West Virginia) at two stars called Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani. On August 15, 1977, the Ohio State University SETI’s program made international headlines after a project volunteer wrote, “Wow!” beside a strong signal received by a telescope there. The “Wow” signal was never repeated, however.
• The SETI Institute was founded in 1984, giving rise to many other independent SETI groups at universities and institutions worldwide. Currently, the SETI Institute, in collaboration with other institutes, is working on a concept called the Allen Telescope Array, which has dozens of radio dishes in northern California.
• Greetings to aliens have also been offered through space probes such as Pioneers 10 and 11 on which a plaque was mounted showing the form of the human body and where the Earth is located in the galaxy. The Pioneer spacecraft also contained two golden records with recorded Earth sounds ranging from whale calls, to music, to the word “hello” in many languages. A 1974 radio transmission from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico included such things as the numbers 1 through 10, the atomic numbers of elements such as hydrogen and oxygen, information about DNA, and diagrams of a human body, the Earth and our solar system.
If aliens reach out to us, what would happen first?
It’s a question that has puzzled science fiction fans and scientists alike for decades, and we already may have a hint of how people will react. On Oct. 30, 1938, a dramatized version of the 1898 H.G. Wells novel “War of the Worlds” played on the CBS Radio system across the United States. The story details how Martians attacked Earth.
The radio broadcast caused a reaction when people mistook it for a real radio report, but accounts vary as to how much of a reaction. Some accounts describe nationwide panic, while others say not very many people actually listened to the broadcast. The promise of alien life stars in Episode 1 of “AMC Visionaries: James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction,” which debuts on AMC tonight. Still, Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) researcher Duncan Forgan told Space.com the “War of the Worlds” broadcast may be instructive to think about as SETI scientists worldwide update their “first contact” protocols.
“If you pick the right science fiction — the hard science fiction — it’s placed in the best possible educated guesses about what will happen,” said Forgan, who is a research fellow at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. He explained that “hard” science fiction refers to science fiction that emphasizes accuracy (think the 2015 movie “The Martian,” for example).
If researchers find a signal today, Forgan said, one of the things they will have to manage is a public used to getting constant news updates on Twitter and other forms of social media. It’s something Forgan and his colleagues are already working on. The International Academy of Astronautics SETI Permanent Committee created a post-detection protocol in 1989 that was slightly updated in 2010; a new update is starting soon and should be finished in a few years, Forgan said.
For the most part, scientists assume alien contact would happen through a signal purposely sent toward Earth. The “acid test” is to make sure the signal is verified by multiple observatories, said SETI Institute senior astronomer Seth Shostak. “It would take a while to verify, and then the people who like to think about these matters say you would have a press conference and announce this to the world,” he said, but he added that wouldn’t work unless everyone in the project were sworn to secrecy. In this era of news leaks, he said that situation is very unlikely to hold.
So, scientists try instead to stick to a protocol that includes informing the public. The 2010 IAA protocol only runs to two pages and covers facets such as searching for a signal, handling evidence and what to do in the case of a confirmed detection.
If the evidence gets out to the public while the scientists are still analyzing the signal, Forgan said they could manage the public’s expectations by using something called the Rio Scale. It’s essentially a numeric value that represents the degree of likelihood that an alien contact is “real.” (Forgan added that the Rio Scale is also undergoing an update, and more should be coming out about it in May.)
If the aliens did arrive here, “first contact” protocols likely would be useless, because if they’re smart enough to show up physically, they could probably do anything else they like, according to Shostak. “Personally, I would leave town,” Shostak quipped. “I would get a rocket and get out of the way. I have no idea what they are here for.”
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