Thanks to recent leaps forward in alien-hunting technology, the possibility of contact seems closer today than ever before. In fact, Seth Shostak, director of the SETI Institute, thinks that there's a good chance we'll be hearing from ET within two decades. This is an exciting prospect, especially since the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has been scanning the cosmos without luck for over half a century now. But it also raises an intriguing, if not worrisome, question: what do we do after contact?
Fortunately, in 1989 a number of the world's leading SETI researchers in the International Academy of Astronautics got together to solve this very problem.
"The history of SETI really dates back to 1960 with the pioneering work of Frank Drake, but by the 1980s, it was being taken a bit more seriously," said Paul Davies, a theoretical physicist at Arizona State University and the Chair of the IAA SETI Post-detection Taskgroup. "So some people said, 'it's well and good that we're doing this, but what if we detect something, what happens next?'"
The answer to this question was the SETI post-detection protocol drafted up by IAA members. This protocol contained nine principles which placed special emphasis on rigorous confirmation of a potential ET signal, as well as the best ways to contain the potential fallout resulting from first contact. Unfortunately, the IAA is not a governmental organization so its protocols are not legally binding and no government has yet broached the topic of creating a national post-contact policy (although a few years ago a rumor spread that the UN had appointed an official extraterrestrial point of contact at the Office for Outer Space Affairs). So barring any ET liaison at the United Nations for now, the IAA's post-detection plan is the only one we've got.
In the immediate aftermath of first contact, the IAA's principles suggest that anyone who believes they have detected an extraterrestrial signal should try to do everything they can to verify that the signal is not a result of some natural or human cause. If the original discoverer decides that the signal they have found is extraterrestrial in origin, before alerting the public, the IAA advises that they should inform all relevant research institutions so that these organizations can attempt to independently verify the signal. If these other institutions confirm that it is in fact an alien signal, this news should be shared with the world via the International Astronomical Union and the Secretary General of the United Nations should be notified, but the discoverer of the signal should have the privilege of making the announcement.
The remaining principles go into the technical details of what to do after first contact, such as making sure the data derived from the signal is stored in such a way that it will never be lost, as well as reserving the radio band on which the signal was discovered for future SETI work, in case the aliens decide to call again.
Importantly, the post-detection principles state that no reply should be sent until "international consultations" have taken place. Whether or not it's a good idea to send a message to aliens is a fiercely debated subject in the world of SETI, and many researchers think it's a bad idea. But even if it was decided that a reply should be sent, there's still the glaring issue of who gets to speak for Earth and what they will say on our behalf.
But let's back up a bit. If we are contacted by aliens, SETI researchers think it will mostly likely be in the form of a radio signal, rather than a physical object or extraterrestrial being paying a visit to Earth. The question is what is the significance of this signal?
This depends on a number of factors, such as whether this radio signal contains a message, or is simply a meaningless signal to let us know that we're not alone. The consequences of these two different types of signals—the one containing a message and the other which does not—could very significantly in terms of their impact on the lives of Earthlings. What if the one containing the message had instructions for building some amazing ET technologies? Or on the flipside, what if it contained a declaration of war?
Moreover, where is this signal being broadcast from? Is it coming from an earthlike planet in orbit around Proxima Centauri, or from a galaxy far, far away? Both examples would still be pretty amazing, but in the former case, there'd be a possibility of a physical visit, or at least holding a conversation with the extraterrestrials. But if the signal emerged from a solar system hundreds of light years away, the time between the message and the response would span several generations on Earth.
To help quantify the significance of first contact, a group of SETI researchers created something called the Rio scale in 2000. The scale ranks different types of contact from the most significant (10) to the least significant (0). At the low end of the scale would be some sort of evidence of "astroengineering" or a beacon signal that is meant to draw attention, is discovered at some place that is outside of the Milky Way Galaxy, and only occurs once. At the high end of the scale would be a signal containing a message that is steadily broadcast toward Earth and is occurring within our galaxy—or even our own solar system.
So if a signal is discovered that ranks high on the Rio scale, what happens next? Well, hopefully, the discoverer follows the IAA-post detection protocols and keeps the discovery under wraps until it can be verified beyond a reasonable doubt. But even this has become a dubious proposition thanks to the rise of social media, something the original authors of the IAA protocols couldn't have foreseen in 1989. During a SETI panel at last year's International Astronautical Congress, a space lawyer named Les Tennen raised concerns that the IAA protocols need to be updated to take into account social media, which would make it far more difficult to contain the discovery until it is verified than it was a quarter of a century ago.
"In this day and age of social media, it's almost impossible to keep anything under wraps for more than a few hours," said Davies. "[The veracity of a signal] will take a long time to check, I don't think you're ever going to have an absolutely clear cut signal, but instead something that's just on the edge of detectability. It will be a long drawn out process, and possibly take decades to resolve."
But even if SETI scientists keep mum on the discovery until it has been verified–whether this process takes a few months or a few years–there's no guarantee about how people will react to the news. As pointed out in a report from a NASA workshop in 1993, "reactions to a detection can range from indifference…through millennial enthusiasm or catastrophist anxiety, to full scale paranoia…a few reactions would probably be irrationally extreme or even violent."
Unfortunately for the IAA, the post-detection protocols they've created are not backed by any government or legal entity (and as yet, no government has seriously tackled the question of post-contact protocols) so whether or not they will be able to temper the possible hysteria following the revelation of contact remains an open question. For now, though, it's the best we've got, so until we receive that first 'hello,' from the cosmos, it's probably best to take a page from the Brits and keep calm and carry on.