If aliens contact humanity, who decides what we do next?

Scientists setting up ‘post-detection hub’ in Scotland are concerned humans would react ‘like headless chickens’.

The moment has been imagined a thousand times. As astronomers comb the cosmos with their powerful telescopes, they spot something that makes them gasp. Amid the feeble rays from distant galaxies lies a weak but persistent signal: a message from an advanced civilisation.

It would be a transformative event for humankind, one the world’s nations are surely prepared for. Or are they? “Look at the mess we made when Covid hit. We’d be like headless chickens,” says Dr John Elliott, a computational linguist at the University of St Andrews. “We cannot afford to be ill-prepared, scientifically, socially, and politically rudderless, for an event that could happen at any time and which we cannot afford to mismanage.”

This frank assessment of Earth’s unreadiness for contact with life elsewhere underpins the creation of the Seti (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) post-detection hub at St Andrews.

Over the next month or two, Elliott aims to bring together a core team of international researchers and affiliates. They will take on the job of getting ready: to analyse mysterious signals, or even artefacts, and work out every aspect of how we should respond.

“Up to now, the focus has been on the search for signals, but all along there’s been a need to know, what are we going to do with it? What next?” says Elliott. “We need strategies and scenarios in place to understand what we need to do and how to do it. It’s like the Scouts’ motto: be prepared.”

Photograph: VW/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Advances made in the past 30 years have ramped up enthusiasm in the search for ET. Since 1992, when astronomers first confirmed the existence of a planet beyond the solar system, more than 5,000 such worlds have been detected. Scientists now suspect most of the 300bn stars in the Milky Way host their own family of planets. “When people say they don’t think there’s life out there, they are really riding against the tide of scientific opinion,” says Elliott.

The abundance of planets, and the suspicion that at least some are habitable, is only part of the story, however. Substantially more powerful telescopes are now giving time to the search, or will do soon, opening great swathes of the sky for astronomers to eavesdrop on.

Seti researchers already have some guidelines on how to behave if they detect a “technosignature” – an interstellar message from an advanced civilisation. A 2010 declaration from the International Academy of Astronautics urges those who detect mysterious signals to rule out prosaic non-alien sources first – such as a microwave oven down the corridor. If there is consensus that the signal is legit, researchers should inform the public and the secretary general of the UN.

Jupiter’s moon Europa. Scientists say most of the 300bn Milky Way stars host their own families of planets and moons. Photograph: Nasa/Reuters

capable individuals or private corporations from responding independently — before a consensus has formed on whether it is safe to respond at all, and what we would want to say as one planet,” he said.

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