“The Day the Earth Stood Still”, “Contact”, “2001: A Space Odyssey” and many other movies have depicted the first contact between humans and aliens. Do scientists really listen for messages from extraterrestrials? Are they prepared if they ever do pick up anything? Martina Redpath investigates.
We all at some point in our lives have wondered are we alone? It is human nature to gaze up at the stars in the evening and wonder. Perhaps on some other planet, in a distant galaxy other beings are doing exactly the same thing! Hollywood has produced many excellent and some not so good motion pictures creating and depicting these distant worlds, nations and civilisations. Yet, so far we have no evidence of life existing elsewhere in our Universe. However, space is a big place so perhaps there may some little extraterrestrial creatures out there.
Within the last decade, and increasingly more recently we are discovering more and more planets out there. To date over 550 exoplanets or extrasolar planets have been discovered. These are planets outside of our Solar System in orbit around another star. The first of these 51 Pegasi b, was discovered in 1995. Check out the PlanetQuest website to keep an eye on new planetary discoveries http://planetquest.jpl.nasa.gov/index.cfm. So should life exist on any of these planets does that mean culture, society, religion as we know it is fundamentally affected?
The discovery of these new planets has made the possible discovery of alien life seem that little bit more realistic. If in the future we were to discover microbes living and reproducing on another planet, this would be without a doubt a huge and significant step in human understanding and discovery of our Universe. This seems like a reasonable and perhaps even a pretty realistic goal for mankind. However discovery of these low life forms is not always what we immediately imagine when thinking of extraterrestrial life. When we imagine life existing in outer space the catalogue image that springs to mind is little green men with rather large eyes. This discovery of ‘Intelligent’ life in space is what could cause the greatest effect on Earth.
Founded in 1984 was an organisation dedicated to the ‘Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence’ or otherwise known as SETI. The Institute employs around 150 people, including scientists, educators and support staff; for further information check out their website http://www.seti.org/. Their mission is to “explore, understand and explain the origin, nature and prevalence of life in the universe”. So far SETI have not discovered or found any evidence of this intelligent life. This is not to say that SETI would be unprepared for such a discovery, in fact they have a protocol in place for such an occurrence. SETI deem their protocol as the first steps to “galactic diplomacy”.
In case of an alien signal being detected the list of steps you should take according to SETI are as follows:
1. Make sure it’s not something made or caused by mankind. Terminology to use to describe the signal if you can’t prove it is aliens: ‘unknown astronomical phenomenon’.
2. Touch bases with other astronomers to assure you are not crazy (N.B not official term used by SETI).
3. Still sure that it is aliens? Then contact the government, the International Astronomical Union, the United Nations and those scientific societies that support SETI.
4. Make a public announcement, crediting your institution and all sponsors.
5. Make your data available to other astronomers.
6. Have your discovery confirmed by others and available to other researchers.
7. Try and protect signals from interference, i.e. Don’t broadcast TV and radio on the same frequency as the aliens.
8. DON’T BROADCAST BACK, they may be hostile, Earth needs to discuss this.
9. A committee of experts will then be created to study signals.
In the past there have been some notable cases of astronomers believing they had detected alien life. Dr. Jerry Ehman in 1977 found an unusual signal using Ohio State University’s Big Ear radio telescope. On the printout of the signals Ehman had circled the unusual intensity reading and written beside it was the word, Wow! This reading was significantly different because it was much more intense than normal space background noise. It also resonated at a similar frequency to hydrogen atoms, and with hydrogen being the most common element in the universe, this is the same frequency alien messages are expected to be discovered at. So what happened after? Well, astronomers have tried to search for the signal again with no such luck, it has not been heard since. Most terrestrial explanations have been rejected; with the most likely explanation secret military or government technology causing a signal….or aliens. Have a listen to this clip to hear the change in frequency. Also, a point made in the last minute of the clip, an unusual coincidence?
In the 1990’s another signal was detected using the Green Bank radio telescope in West Virginia, which turned out to be NASA’s Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO). Before realising what had actually happened, news had spread to the press. However the issue was clarified before any article was ever published. On both occasions there was no outbreak of chaos, pandemonium or fear. In fact, the world just waited to see what happened next. Also interestingly the protocols put in place by SETI should ET get in touch were not followed.
In today’s society, if an ‘unknown astronomical phenomenon’ was heard, I think a similar seriesof events would follow much like the ”Wow!” signal in 1977. It would attract initial attention for obvious reasons, but unless repetition of such a signal occurs and there was slightly more convincing evidence of extra terrestrial life or indeed little green men were to descend onto the planet, it would be difficult to convince the cynics and sceptics out there of the possible meaning of such a signal.
However, if life on another planet was discovered and proved to exist, then humanity’s existence as we know may be altered, despite allowing us to gain insight into the rest of our Universe. The geocentric point of view of many world religions would be rattled. Potentially on realising the size of mankind compared to the Universe may induce war and violence or perhaps the opposite, world peace and nations uniting together here on Earth. Mankind would become members of a much larger cosmic community.
When imagining life out there, our ideas of life usually fall into two categories. Firstly, as hostile beings intent on destroying Earth, perhaps this is a psychological projection of mankind’s image of itself portrayed onto these foreign creatures. Or secondly, as super-intelligent beings who could save us and teach us knew things, because we see ourselves as insecure and need to be rescued. More interestingly in the quest for extra-terrestrial life we can learn more about ourselves and mankind than we can hypothesising about would may or not happen.
Either way, if Aliens get in touch are we ready? Remenber,to them we will be the aliens!
(Article by Martina Redpath)