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Signal in the Noise

Illustration by Tracy Worrall

10 min read

Just what is the plan if we detect life beyond Earth? As Siân Boyle discovers, there remain surprisingly few contingencies for news that we are not alone in the universe

If human beings were to detect extraterrestrial (ET) intelligence tomorrow, what would happen?

How would the world’s most existentially significant discovery be handled, and by whom? What agreements are in place, and are they ratified? How would information about an alien discovery be disseminated across the world? And if we were to receive a signal from interstellar space, would we send one back?

Such questions, while philosophically compelling, are not the domain of serious policymakers, at least not here. Planning for ET discovery isn’t considered worthy of contention, let alone funding. Unlike on Capitol Hill, where earnest hearings on UFO sightings have been held, any mention of ET in Westminster invokes queasiness; no aliens please, we’re British.

But rapid developments in technology and scientific discovery mean the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) is gaining both momentum and credibility.

tin foil hat 1
Illustration by Tracy Worrall

With around 100 billion stars in our Milky Way galaxy, and up to two trillion galaxies in the observable universe, many of the world’s foremost scientists are convinced that intelligent life is out there. And what’s really exciting them is the discovery of exoplanets – planets orbiting stars beyond our solar system – which increases the likelihood of habitable life, and therefore potential ETI. 

Until the 1990s we didn’t know exoplanets existed. Now, however, with technology like the James Webb Space Telescope, launched just over two years ago, more than 5,000 exoplanets have been identified. Nasa predicts “tens of thousands within a decade”, facilitated by advances in AI and launchable robotic telescopes.

There are now legitimate, if diffident, calls for an ETI preparedness plan. Caught off-guard by Covid-19, the World Health Organisation’s pandemic preparedness treaty won’t be finalised until this May at the earliest, some four years after the outbreak. Nations are reactively scrambling to regulate AI. Some now believe it would be prudent to have a blueprint for what could potentially be a cataclysmic event in human history.

Dr John Elliott, who has been considering the consequences of ETI for the last 25 years, feels vindicated. It’s partly because of him that, if alien life were discovered tomorrow, the UK is at the gravitational centre of what would happen next. 

Elliott founded the SETI Post-Detection Hub, based at the University of St Andrews, in November 2022, with the ultimate goal of creating a global decision-making framework in the event of a discovery. 

Shortly after launching, Elliott was invited to speak at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, whose strategic foresight team informs EU policymaking on emerging risks, strategic planning and preparedness.

The SETI Post-Detection team of 40 academics doesn’t just comprise astronomers and cosmologists, but psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, space lawyers and analysts, some of whom have advised various governments on nuclear risk analysis. That’s because a significant chunk of post-detection policy drafting relates not to aliens, but Earthlings.

“As much as we’re looking out there and speculating about what an alien civilisation may be… the other half of [the work] is looking down on… the complexity of humanity… and how we will react,” says Elliott. 

Few SETI academics believe ETI would herald the demise of organised religion, with more than one wryly observing that the Vatican’s chief astronomer is on top of his brief. (“They always adapt to anything.”) There could, however, be political paranoia and knee-jerk responses from leaders who feel they’ve been excluded from information.

The greatest threat to societal collapse is disinformation, and the role social media could play in the amplification of panic or public disbelief of the announcement. SETI researchers are more concerned about cults and conspiracy theorists than any laser-wielding alien cyborgs. (Last year, Nasa announced it had appointed a director of UFO research, but declined to name them for fear of trolling.) 

“If we do not prepare for this, we will be at high risk of the resulting narrative for the world’s agenda being set by disruptive ‘forces’,” says Dr Elliott. “It then could be that humanity is far more in danger of self-harm than external risk.”

There is no plan. There’s no chain of command, there’s no hierarchy, there’s no authority

Unlike the original SETI Institute in California, founded in 1984, which receives millions of dollars in philanthropic donations, the SETI Post-Detection Hub has no independent funding. Its members work pro bono, for the sheer joy of creating the world’s most complex insurance policy. They intend to release their first protocols by this time next year.

They’re building on a set of protocols adopted by the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) in 1989 and revised in 2010. First, should ETI be detected (most likely via a radio signal), the discovery would need to be verified. Once verified, state the protocols, “the discoverer shall report this conclusion in a full and complete open manner to the public, the scientific community, and the Secretary General of the United Nations”.

A formal report would then be submitted to the Paris-headquartered International Astronomical Union and, if the discovery is in the form of electromagnetic signals, the frequencies would be protected by the World Administrative Radio Council of the International Telecommunication Union, a UN agency.

The discovery information would be recorded, stored permanently and shared throughout the international scientific community, most likely through the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams, which globally announces any new space discoveries. The signatories also agreed that, in the event of a signal detection, they would not reply to it “without first seeking guidance and consent of a broadly representative international body, such as the United Nations”.

The UN’s Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) co-ordinates global access to space, and its 1967 Outer Space Treaty is regarded as the backbone of space law. But it makes no reference to ETI. 

According to Dr Elliott, the UN will effectively only action a mandate on ETI when a member state requests it. UNOOSA “does not have the mandate to work and/or to engage on topics concerning extraterrestrials and currently, there are no discussions by the member states… in this context”, a source stated. This means there is no legislature or legal framework for the discovery of alien life. ETI preparedness is a diplomatic black hole. 

tin foil hat 2
Illustration by Tracy Worrall

“There is no plan,” says astronomy and astrophysics professor Jason Wright, director of the Penn State Extraterrestrial Intelligence Centre and one of the world’s leading SETI scientists. “There’s no chain of command, there’s no hierarchy, there’s no authority.”

One of the reasons for this is the erroneous conflation of hard science and science fiction, and the subsequent incredulity with which SETI is often met. Studying UFOs is an emphatically different discipline to the decipherment of interstellar radio signals, says Wright. Astrophysicists, weary of raised eyebrows at cocktail parties, even have a phrase for it: “the giggle factor”.  

“If we receive a signal from outer space, the questions will depend on things like, is it a strong signal? Is it communicative? Can we decode it? Is it intended for us?” Wright says. 

In contrast, there are UFO obsessives who imagine that “the UFO lands at – I don’t know what your equivalent of the White House lawn [is] and [they] say ‘Take us to your leader’”, says Wright. “People imagine from science fiction that if a detection is made, the men in white suits show up, the helicopter lands with the over-aggressive general that tries to take over the observatory, they’ll keep it secret.” 

It is hard not to wonder for a moment about the UK equivalent of the White House lawn – Downing Street would require the aliens to have a compact craft and parallel parking skills. But the serious question is: wouldn’t the first nation to detect ETI want to keep it secret? It’s hard to imagine China, one of the major space power players alongside the US, sacrificing such a glittering political and military prize in the name of global co-operation. 

“I think the most important thing for policymakers to understand is that if we find a signal, there’s no way to monopolise it,” says Wright. “You can’t point a signal at one observatory. It’ll wash over the entire Earth. And once the co-ordinates and frequency are known, anyone can hear it.” He cites a time in 2022 when astrophysicists at China’s next-generation FAST telescope picked up what appeared to be a candidate signal and immediately shared this internationally. 

I think the most important thing for policymakers to understand is that if we find a signal, there’s no way to monopolise it

The dearth of classified ETI emergency protocols, if not in the dusty vaults of Whitehall then at least drafted somewhere in the US, home of Area 51, appears suspicious. “If they did, I would know about it,” says Professor Michael Garrett, director of Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics, and chair of the IAA’s SETI Permanent Committee.

“I’m not aware of any plan, either in the US or in the UK or any other country for that matter, that tries to set out what would be a good strategy in terms of… communicating to the public, understanding what the risk is, all those kind of things,” says Garrett. “I don’t think governments are doing it.”

But he believes there should be more cohesive links between administrations and their respective national scientists, “so that if a detection is made, we know what to do and we know who to talk to and we know where to go… So we act in a responsible way and not in an irresponsible way. And I think to ensure that you have to have government involvement.”

The UK is slowly beginning to consider the implications of discovering we aren’t alone in the universe. Last month it was Stephen Metcalfe MP who came up against the giggle factor. “You can see why I am loathe to ask this question, because I can hear sniggering,” he told the Science, Innovation and Technology Committee, which has launched an inquiry into the strength of the UK astronomy sector. 

“It would fundamentally change our understanding of our place in the universe if we were to find evidence of life outside of Earth”, said Metcalfe, quizzing Michelle Donelan, the Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology. “If life were found in whatever form, does government have a plan about how that would be shared with the public?”

In response, Donelan said: “The communication plan would depend on the exact specifics of the hypothetical that we are talking about and how it would play out, and would also be a cross-government undertaking with particular Cabinet Office involvement.” ETI discovery is not on the National Risk Register, she said, but “it is taken appropriately seriously”.

Alien contact
Illustration by Tracy Worrall

Sarah Munby, permanent secretary at the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, revealed that the department has “a small effort within our space team looking at the question of how we would handle such an announcement”. She added that the most likely scenarios aren’t those that would feature on the risk register, but “the findings of what is likely to be relatively local, relatively unadvanced microbial life.

“It could actually be a really important catalysing moment for the UK science community,” she said.

In the meantime, John Elliott is unwavering about the imperative for a plan. “Will we ever get a message from ET? We don’t know”, he admits. “We also do not know when this is going to happen. 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, and which we cannot afford to mismanage.” 

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