What if aliens actually turn up and want to communicate with us? Everything would change. We'd all remember exactly where we were, the moment we found out that humanity really isn't alone. And then what?
What do we do next? More to the point, does anybody have any plan for what to do, after we find the aliens we've been wondering about for centuries?
People first started looking for aliens in the 1700s, when telescopes really started getting good. Many were so sure that life was out there, they believed it existed on all observable planets, moons — and even the sun.
As they analyzed the celestial objects around Earth more carefully, it became accepted that life was less common than everybody had thought. And as they began appreciating the space between the stars, they began to understand that searching out life was more of an undertaking than anyone had previously thought, that it might be impossible. But in the Space Age, when people started putting up telescopes and satellites that might see far enough and wide enough that they might find life wherever it is, the expectation returned that we'd find someone out there. And with it came the need to plan.
NASA summed up its only first contact-related plans in a simple report entitled Would Contact with Extraterrestrials Benefit or Harm Humanity? A Scenario Analysis.
Like any good science nerd report, it begins with categorization. There are three general types of contact that would require planning: beneficial, neutral, and harmful. For their purposes, "beneficial" means absolutely any contact that the human race came out okay from. This could range from merely noticing alien news broadcasts to being saved from falling into the sun by alien altruists to being able to quickly and efficiently deal with alien aggressors.
Neutral means finding aliens that are so different, or so bureaucratically tedious (and remember, these are government workers talking about tedium), that any contact with them wouldn't be worth the effort. Harmful could range from a space plague to them accidentally smooshing us beneath their flying saucers.
Responses to the first and second scenario are, respectively, are break out the champagne, and be disappointed. The third scenario isn't really a response so much as a warning. No one should send out detailed signals about the biology of humans, lest anyone send out biological weapons. We also want to be cautious about stepping into a galactic culture that we don't know much about. If we expand rapidly, and brag about our reach, we may either step on the toes (or the whatever-they-have) of a civilization we're contacting, or threaten a civilization that we haven't detected, but that happens to be allied with a civilization that we're contacting. Don't give anyone a reason to send out a first strike.
Well, that's not much of a plan. In fact, no government has official plans for what to do about contact with alien life. This oversight was criticized at a recent meeting of the Royal Society in London — many of whose members are a little worried that some government somewhere might fly off the handle and respond to alien first contact, bringing doom upon us all. They want any alien contact to be reported to, and voted on, by the United Nations. This is one decision we have to make as a planet.
But what about private organizations? SETI is the only such organization that has a plan in place for any contact with alien life. In fact, they have a whole Post Detection Taskgroup, which has to be the only taskforce on the planet which produces minutes that anyone might want to read. Not surprisingly, the first point of the protocol involves going to SETI for confirmation. To be fair, they do have the set-up for it. And it would be embarrassing if it were, say, a local radio station being mistaken for alien signals. After that, it would be okay to go to the United Nations and the International Astronomical Union, and they would organize a massive press conference, at which the discoverer would announce preliminary findings. While the data used to confirm the discovery would be released, the coordinates would be kept secret until the United Nations could gather information on the broadcaster and decide whether or not to respond.
More importantly, though, what's your plan? What would you do if someone announced intelligent alien life tomorrow? Go to church? Cry? Stockpile food supplies for the riots? Save up your precious germs and bacteria to use as biological weapons against invaders? Or would you try to hack into SETI's system to find out the coordinates, build a radio signal, and try to be the first person to talk back to the alien civilization?
Second Image: NASA