What If We Do Find Aliens?

Time to talk about my favorite topic: aliens.

We’ve covered the Fermi Paradox many times over several articles on Universe Today. This is the idea that the Universe is huge, and old, and the ingredients of life are everywhere. Life could and should have have appeared many times across the galaxy, but it’s really strange that we haven’t found any evidence for them yet.

We’ve also talked about how we as a species have gone looking for aliens. How we’re searching the sky for signals from their alien communications. How the next generation of space and ground-based telescopes will let us directly image the atmospheres of extrasolar planets. If we see large quantities of oxygen, or other chemicals that shouldn’t be around, it’s a good indication there’s life on their planet.

We’ve even talked about how aliens could use that technique on us. We’ve been sending our radio and television signals out into space for the last few decades. Who knows what crazy things they think about our “historical documents”? But Earth life itself has been broadcasting our existence for hundreds of millions of years, since the first plankton started filling our atmosphere with oxygen. A distant civilization could be analyzing our atmosphere and know exactly when we entered the industrial age.

But what we haven’t talked about, the space elephant in the room, if you will, is what we’ll do if we actually make contact. What are we going to say to each other? And what will happen if the aliens show up?

War of the Worlds
I’m hoping that first contact doesn’t start out like this. Credit: Henrique Alvim Correa, 1906, for the novel “The War of the Worlds”

Although there’s no official protocol on talking to aliens, scientists and research institutions have been puzzling out the best way we might communicate for quite a while.

Perhaps the best example is the SETI Institute, the US-based research group who have dedicated radio telescopes scanning the skies for messages from space.

Let’s imagine you’re a SETI researcher, and you’re browsing last night’s logs and you see what looks like a message. Maybe it’s instructions to build some kind of dimensional portal, or a recipe book.

Whatever you do, don’t try out the recipes. Instead, you need to make absolutely sure you’re not dealing with some kind of natural phenomenon. Then you need to reach out to other researchers and get them to confirm the signal.

The Green Bank Telescope is the world’s largest, fully-steerable telescope. The GBT’s dish is 100-meters by 110-meters in size, covering 2.3 acres of space. The telescope is currently being used in a new SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) attempt to look for possible alien radio signals from Tabby's Star. Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF
The Green Bank Telescope is the world’s largest, fully-steerable telescope. The GBT’s dish is 100-meters by 110-meters in size, covering 2.3 acres of space. The telescope is currently being used in a new SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) attempt to look for possible alien radio signals from Tabby’s Star. Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF

If they agree it’s aliens, then you need to inform the International Astronomical Union and other international groups, like the United Nations, Committee on Space Research, etc.

Unless they’ve got some good reason to stop you, it’s time to announce the discovery to the worldwide media. You made the discovery, you get to break the news to the world.

At this point, of course, the entire world is going to freak right out. Whatever you do, however, you have to resist the urge to send back a message or build that dimensional portal, no matter how much you think you understand the science. Instead, let an international committee mull it over while you stockpile supplies in a secret alien proof bunker in the desert.

What kind of message should we actually craft to our new alien penpals? Will we become fast friends, jump starting our own technological progress, or will we insult them by accident?

In 2000, and international group of SETI researchers including the famous Jill Tarter devised The Rio Scale. It really easy to use, and there’s even a fun online calculator.

Step 1, figure out the class of phenomenon. Is it a message sent directly to Earth, expecting a reply? Or did we merely find some alien artifact or old timey Dyson sphere orbiting a nearby star?

Step 2, how verifiable is the discovery? Are we talking ongoing signals received by SETI researchers, or a hint in some old data that’s impossible to confirm?

Step 3, how far are we talking here? Hovering over Paris? Within our Solar System, or outside the galaxy?

Step 4, how sure are you? 100% certain, and everyone agrees because they can all see that enormous mothership floating above London? Or nobody believes you, and they’ve locked you up because of your insane ramblings and misappropriation of government equipment?

Punch in your numbers and you’ll get a rank on The Rio Scale between 0 and 10. Level 0 is “no importance” or “you’re a crank”, while level 10 is “extraordinary importance”, or “now would be a good time to panic”.

Movie poster from 'Independence Day.' Credit: 20th Century Fox
Not the best outcome. Credit: 20th Century Fox

SETI researcher Seth Shostak, calculated the Rio Scale for various sci-fi movies and shows. The first message from aliens in Independence Day would count as a 4. While the obliteration of the White House by a massive floating alien city that everybody could see would count as a 10.

the messages received in Contact, and independently confirmed by researchers around the world would qualify in the 4-8 range, while the monolith discovered on the Moon in 2001 would be a solid 6.

Now you know how important the discovery is, what do you say back to those chatty aliens?

This falls under the term CETI, which means Communications with Extraterrestrial Aliens, which shouldn’t be confused with SETI, or the Search for Extraterrestrial Aliens. And it turns out, that horse has already left the stable.

When the Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft were constructed, they were equipped with handy maps to find Earth’s precise location in the Milky Way.

The famous "Golden Record" carried aboard both Voyager 1 and 2 contains images, sounds and greetings from Earth. (NASA)
The famous “Golden Record” carried aboard both Voyager 1 and 2 contains images, sounds and greetings from Earth. (NASA)

In 1974, Carl Sagan and Frank Drake who composed a message in alienese and broadcast it into space from the Arecibo Observatory.

In 1999 and 2003 a series of signals were transmitted towards various interesting stars. The messages contained images of Earth, as well as various mathematical principles that could be used by aliens as a common language.

We’ll know if that was a good idea in a few decades.

In 2015, scientists like David Grinspoon, Seth Shostak and David Brin collected together to discuss if it’s a wise idea to send messages off into space, to broadcast our existence to potentially hostile alien civilizations.

According to Seth Shostak, the best message we can send is the entire internet. Just send it all, they’ll work out what we’re all about.

The science fiction author David Brin thinks that’s a terrible idea, and we should keep our mouths shut.

Personally, I think the aliens already know we’re here. If they wanted to invade and destroy our planet, they would have done it millions of years ago when early life made it obvious this planet was inhabited. The jig is up.

It’s a mind bending concept to imagine what life might be like if we knew with absolutely certainty that there’s an alien civilization right over there, on that world. I’m sure people will freak out for a while, but then we’ll probably just go back to life as normal. Human beings can get bored by the most surprising and amazing things.

If you learned there was definitely an alien civilization out there, how do you think humanity would respond? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

20 Replies to “What If We Do Find Aliens?”

  1. Why would any beings with space flight go to war with any planet and or star system that has any level of civilization on or in it?
    Not for resources that I can see, as millions of planets would not be inhabited by any higher life forms that would have these.
    As well as the millions of moons and asteroids with the resources needed. It is very expensive to transport more then is necessary to get to another star system, space opera, notwithstanding.

    1. I would completely agree with you, except for one thing: What if there is another reason that we can’t even understand? Should we bet our existence when there is any doubt at all?

      Also, what if we were dealing with an ancient galaxy spanning civilization which has seen thousands of new species come along and try to elbow in for a share. They might have decided it is just more cost effective to wipe out anyone who might give them competition in the future. As soon as they spot signs of technology, they send in the troops to return the upstarts to the stone age. Much easier than waiting for us to come to them.

    2. Besides resources that are transportable, you posed a good question. Why would an alien race come to Earth? My best answer is to avoid extinction from where they are. This could be from a dying sun or pollution from over working their environment or political reasons. And if they are jumping aboard their huge generational FTL ship to come here, you bet they are targeting our planet to live on. And if they need some toxic form of gas in the atmosphere to thrive, you bet we will be on the short end of their plans with them never having to fire a single shot at us. They’ll just watch us die from orbit.

    3. Alien beings might not have any value for other life forms. If indeed they are sophisticated and bellicose, they might decide to destroy Earth for just plain meanness… Surely this is understood.

      1. HHGTTU as you may know has earth destroyed just because it’s in the way of a hyperspace by-pass. Not meanness just beauracrats doing what they always do, barely giving a sh*t.

  2. Great sum-up Fraser, and an honourable clear stand on the matter. Others have been, and are, ridiculed by less when it comes to aliens.
    This morning my 7 year old daughter and I spottet a whole UFO-party beyond a hill nearby, sending small lights left, right and center. Having studied the lights for some minutes on the way to her school bus, we could reduce the fenomena to a BFE – a Black Friday Event – at some shopping center some km’s away. So “our first” went from a 0-1 on the said Rio scale to a clear 10 on the Rio Party scale…
    Our reactions to a possible future contact of some sort, will be closely linked to second-guessing their intentions and their possible treatment of earth and us humans. They might be mostly curious and adventurous as we are – and thus “mostly harmless”. Or they might be as opportunistic as the newly president-elect DT appears – and thus just obliterate us in their ongoing quest for resources at whatever convenient world they stumble upon.
    Chances are we will not see “them”, only their robotic scouts and drillers. If however their civilisation is as advanced as they must be in order to come by or send us anything at all, I guess they have the potential to use any resource on any asteroid or planet – and would therefore, perhaps, just study us, say hello and poke us at times to have a big laugh till their many heads fall off.
    On the science, you could have added the Drake equation along with the Fermi paradox – as a starting point to evaluate the chances of their existence at all. At my university course in astronomy my professor left the question at that. Cheers!

  3. Treating space-faring aliens like petulant democrats just learning that their candidate lost an election is nonsense. Fear is in the heart of all true progressives but the chance of alien intelligence it so remote that it should not be just something new to rush to the crayons and play-dough room. Fermi was right.

  4. Frasier, I believe your article assumes something about SETI which is incorrect. In the opening pages of Paul Davies’s “The Eerie Silence”, he admits that if SETI DOES discover an alien signal, their first requirement is to report it to the US government, which will then decide the proper way to disseminate the message.

    Since many people feel the government has kept the existence of other civilizations classified for decades, I don’t hold out high hopes for the SETI program in general.

    And if you want to check out the NSA’s own website, there’s a declassified document right there admitting we’ve already received almost 30 transmissions from outer space, and their best cryptographers are attempting to decipher them. If you don’t believe me, here’s the document itself:


  5. If aliens are in anyway like humans then there’s bound to be somone out there wanting to take us over, why? Because they can! Who hasn’t thought when they were young; “If I was King of the World I would do this….”

  6. iam sure that the chances of life on other worlds are at 99.9999% but we have only been sending radio waves less than 100 years ago and in those waves. perhaps there are thousands of worlds that have animal life forms within 100 light years. there may be hundreds of intelligent civilizations several hundred light years away and they are just starting to spread out now. it will be a while but we dont have to worry about hostile forces-it is super unlikely that advanced creatures have murderous intentions-we have seen here in earth that the greatest minds in exploration no longer seek to conquer but explore and study.

  7. I worry about a lot of things. Fire, pathogens, burglars, and many other nefarious creatures. However, when it comes to intelligent beings from other planets, I’m a lot more optimistic than most people.
    I think the odds are good that most of them are going to be helpful.
    Looking at the 200,000 year history of humans, as we have advanced, we have become less violent. We see that it makes life a lot more pleasant. I think beings far more advanced than us will have eliminated violence.

    It’s obvious that they won’t come here for our resources, because they can get them much closer to their home for much less cost.

    If we wanted to hide, I don’t think we could, for the reasons others have pointed-out.

  8. If I knew that ET was about to reveal their existence,i would buy shares of every laxative
    business that I could.

    The answer DORIS DAY has ‘Que Sera Sera’

  9. Thanks for a great article Fraser!! It certainly gets the grey matter working. Personally I cannot conceive an alien race would be anything like the Hollywood versions, war like or aggressive. All I can see is scientists just like us wanting to know what their neighbors are like. So I would want to say hello. I’m sure tentative approaches would result in an understanding that we are non-aggressive. Maybe I dream of the perfect universe too much but that’s my opinion.

  10. Let’s see it has been 70 years since extraterrestrial civilizations have made obvious contact with the human race and we have not been wiped out or even marginally affected by them. Please understand that being an amateur astronomer for over fifty years, a FAA Air Traffic Controller for 25 years and working for NORAD in the US Air force, plus working on the Tonopah, Nevada Air force ranges, right next to Groom Lake gives me no credibility to say if they are real!!! But for all you armchair Astronauts that think alien spacecraft are a figment of an idiot’s imagination, please consider this, I have observe them thru telescopes and visually and YES, they are very real. If you wish not to believe me fine, but I have a full FAA retirement and complete 100% US VA disability for my work in the US AIR Force to back up what I say. I have documentation of the observations and they have been published in the Electric Spacecraft Journal and reported to MUFON and CUFOS. It is a real shame that Internet has made people numb to the subject, with so much crap and conspiracy misinformation. The people need to go out in to the dark sky places that are left and observe with binoculars and scopes plus cameras instead of waiting to hear it on FOX News!!!

  11. If wandering aliens would come across Earth and observe it for a while they’d come to the conclusion that it is being willingly poisoned by a bellicose specie and that the logical solution is to eradicate the infestation for the well being of the millions of others, the planet itself and the rest of the Universe….

  12. Now WHY would any experienced space faring civilization want to have anything to do with us at all? They’ve probably kept tabs on us and have seen just how our witless our activities have been. How we’ve denuded our planet and generated innumerable species extinctions. If they’ve watched us brutally murder millions of our own kind and otherwise be horrible neighbors to each other then why in the name of the Supreme Being would they want to meet with us? We are bad ju-ju and BAD actors! Probably the reason we haven’t been contacted is because we are being held in quarantine!

    1. I thought when Voyager crossed out of the solar system, this event might have set off a monitoring system. i.e. “STAND BACK! Here they come!”

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