Scientists have founded a new research hub at the University of St Andrews to prepare for the discovery of life on other planets, reports Vice. Although it is not clear whether we will ever find life outside of Earth, or whether aliens even exist, their discovery will have enormous consequences for humanity, regardless of what form it may take.
The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), (along with the broader search for even simple life forms such as bacteria) has become extremely complex, increasing the chances that we may indeed stumble upon evidence of alien existence in the coming decades, if to assume that they actually exist.
John Elliott, who serves as honorary research fellow in the School of Computer Science of the University of St Andrews in Scotland, has been thinking about the potential ramifications of an alien detection for decades. During his long involvement with the SETI Permanent Committee, a group of SETI experts established by the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA), he has developed approaches for deciphering extraterrestrial messages and gamed out how to disseminate information about a confirmed extraterrestrial detection to a global audience.
Elliott has now established the SETI Post-Detection Hub, based at the University of St Andrews’ Center for Exoplanet Science and the Center for Global Law and Governance, to bring together different experts and predict the world’s joys and tribulations after extraterrestrials are detected.
“It was increasingly evident that we needed a center (home) to coordinate our efforts for an integrated provision to deal with such an event,” Elliott said. “So, with the encouragement of colleagues, I took the initiative and began developing the hub, to where it is now.”
The creation of the center is one of many signs that existing protocols for detecting extraterrestrial objects are likely to come under increased scrutiny in the near future. The SETI Standing Committee adopted a basic plan of action for the event in 1989, but many researchers believe that these guidelines have not kept up with the rapidly evolving media landscape and the search for extraterrestrial life itself. Two groups of researchers also recently discussed the feasibility of preparing for risks to the safety of SETI researchers and astronomical facilities, including terrorist attacks or espionage.
Experts suggest that the protocols would benefit from interdisciplinary input from professionals from all walks of life, such as sociologists, lawyers, media professionals and enthusiasts who are simply interested in extraterrestrial life.
“The main issues are around bringing detail and agreement, as well as possible legal implications, to anything past the initial phase of detection, where the signal/discovery is confirmed as not human-made and from a credible extraterrestrial source, which focuses on receiving a signal,” Elliott explained. “All other foci in the current protocol are on general behavior (transparency of discovery and information), as well as initial indicators of the discovery’s significance.”
In other words, researchers like Elliott would like to work with interdisciplinary experts to address some of the gaps in current protocols, including coordinating the transparent sharing of alien detection information between countries. Researchers at the new center also plan to tackle today’s news environment, which is fueled massively by social media, making it particularly vulnerable to conspiracy theorists and misinformation.
“There will be denial/conspiracy advocates, as is for many events in history,” he added. “Cultural leaders may well have a significant impact, regarding this.”
Of course, these plans are highly dependent on the nature of the discovery. For example, NASA’s Perseverance rover is currently looking for signs of simple life on Mars that may have existed more than three billion years ago. The discovery of Martian fossils would be a huge breakthrough that would prove that life on Earth is not unique.
However, finding the remains of extinct microbes would be very different from, say, receiving a message sent by an intelligent extraterrestrial civilization that exists right now somewhere in another part of our galaxy. We may also be presented with very ambiguous evidence of extraterrestrial life, such as the detection of a certain mixture of gases in the atmosphere of a planet hundreds of light years away, which may hint at biological activity but cannot conclusively prove it.
That’s why scientists will need to “expand this to address all possible likely scenarios,” says Elliott.
“An extant intelligent civilization would pose many additional issues, such as ongoing societal impact needs and signal analysis,” he added, noting that SETI would have to discuss the risks presented by the alien species, the question of whether to respond, and what to say if we did transmit a reply.
A new center at the University of St Andrews will develop solutions to these problems and help people prepare for the fact that aliens, in one form or another, may be discovered in the future.