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A mysterious object, moving through space. Astronomers at Haleakala Observatory in Hawaiispy it entering our solar system, and they soon realize something is very odd. It’s not a comet or meteor, because thosetravel through space in a direct line. This strange object is tumbling through space,and moving so fast that it couldn’t have originated from our solar system. What is it? What brought it to our neck of space? And most importantly.

why is it here? Astronomers were puzzled, but before theycould get their answers, it was gone. The mysterious “Oumuamua” left our solarsystem as quickly as it came, sailing past the sun into quarters unknown. Scientists now believe Oumuamoua was a cigar-shapedinterstellar rock, but its presence in our solar system caused no small stir among scientists. But what would happen if life from anothergalaxy entered our solar system? This has been the subject of fiction for overa century, from intelligent aliens who come in peace, evil green men who come with laserguns, and even hungry aliens looking for the best way to “serve man”. We’ve been thinking about first contactfor a long time. But the government has been making plans forthis possibility just as long, and they want to make sure we make a good first impression. In 1977, the two Voyager spacecraft launchedby NASA each contained a golden phonograph record holding the sounds and images of lifeon Earth. These unmanned spacecraft are heading intounknown space, including within two year’s lightspeed distance from the star Gliese 445,where many planets exist. 

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If an advanced civilization - with the capacityto play the record - finds it, they’ll find a mix of natural sounds including animal callsand the sound of wind and waves. They’ll see music and greetings in fifty-ninelanguages, and messages from the US President and UN Secretary General at the time. NASA hopes this will let the aliens know whathumanity has to offer, and either lead them to contact us - or to preserve a record ofour civilization. After all, the Voyager 1 probe is expectedto reach Gliese 445 in about forty thousand years. But what if the aliens find our planet first? Does the government have a plan for if theyconfirm aliens exist? As always with our government, the answeris...maybe? Private astronomy firms staff a small groupof scientists working in the controversial field known as SETI - search for extraterrestriallife. Their goal is to monitor radio telescopesfor unusual broadcasts that could be a sign of alien contact. But the problem is, no one knows what forman alien broadcast would take. 

It could be an alien species that’s intelligentenough to have studied our planet and is communicating in a language we’ll understand, but it’sfar more likely that an alien species would know little about our planet and would becommunicating in a language we’d have no way to translate - if they even have somethingcomparable to language. In the 1990s, scientists developed new protocolsfor SETI scientists that indicated that they should share any findings with scientistsfrom other countries. This was the tail-end of the Cold War, whenit was unlikely the United States and Soviet Union would share anything with each other. Relations have warmed - slightly - but nonational government has shown much interest in funding SETI research and the scientistswork independently. In 1997, scientists picked up a false alarmsignal that looked like a possible contact from aliens.

The government didn’t contact them, andno one came to drag the scientists off to Area 51. Who did call? Journalists from the New York Times! The government may not be that interestedin contact with other aliens, but the press sure is. So what would the government do if they actuallydid confirm aliens exist? They briefly did fund a program called ProjectCyclops in 1971 to coordinate thousands of radio telescopes to scan the cosmos for messages,but it was shelved due to costs and government efforts have been modest since. But it’s likely that any discovery of actualcontact with another civilization would suddenly become VERY classified. Our research into extrasolar planets in systemsand galaxies beyond our own has discovered many planets that could be habitable, butno conclusive proof has been found. However, SETI scientists - and related METIspecialists focusing on messaging - are concentrating their efforts on those planets. How the government would react to contactwith alien lifeforms depends heavily on the type of lifeform. 

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The majority of human space research rightnow is concentrated on Mars, where we’ve sent multiple unmanned rovers like the long-livedNASA Curiosity to take samples of the soil. There is ample evidence that there was oncewater and an atmosphere on Mars, making it possible that there was life there beforethe cosmic upheaval that stripped away the cocktail for life from the planet. Finding evidence of that, like fossils, wouldgive us our first glimpse of extraterrestrial life, but let’s go further. What if there was something still there, somethingsmall that had survived the cataclysm? Many species on Earth, like the horseshoecrab, have survived for hundreds of millions of years and multiple extinction waves. Let’s say we found a unique arthropod onMars - the Martian Crab, a burrowing creature living under the surface. How would the government respond to this discovery? Because it’s a non-sapient form of life,the main priority would be safe study.

Our unmanned explorers would take a sampleand transmit as much information as possible back to Earth. A program is under development to send anunmanned drone to Mars and pick up samples of Martian soil that would return by 2032. But getting a live sample of a Martian creatureback to Earth would be trickier - and would probably involve a manned mission to Mars,something that hasn’t been attempted by any nation yet. Even if possible, it would involve major risks. We don’t know what organisms would be usinga Martian creature as a host, meaning the arrival of a sample on Earth would carry therisk of bringing a deadly pathogen back with it. If the US government discovered alien lifeon a nearby planet, we’re likely to leave it there for safety reasons. But what if alien life comes looking for us? Does the government have a plan? If they do, it’s so highly classified thatnone of us know about it. If an intelligent alien species found ourplanet and wanted to make contact with us, they’re likely to be so advanced that theywould be setting the terms of the introduction - and we’d be waiting to find out if theywere friendly or hostile. So how would humanity react to first contactwith aliens? If history is any indication, probably withpanic. 

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One of the most famous “close encounters”happened in Flatwoods, West Virginia in 1952. Two brothers saw an unknown object fall fromthe sky and land on a local farmer’s property. They gathered a friend of theirs, two randomchildren, and a local national guardsman, and went to investigate. They claim to have seen a very tall, man-likefigure with a round, red face and an odd hood-shaped head. They ran for the authorities, said they hadseen a monster, and tried to get the police to chase the “alien” down. Was it an alien? Or was it an owl sitting on top of a tree? The “Flatwoods Monster” was never seenagain, but let’s hope if we have a first contact, there’s a more organized response. The SETI Permanent Committee of the InternationalAcademy of Astronautics developed a protocol plan for first contact, but will the governmentput it into effect? There are eight steps. First, make sure that it’s of intelligentorigin before announcing it.

Second, communicate this finding with allother nations who have agreed to this protocol. Third, inform the rest of the astronomicalcommunity. Fourth, the discovering party makes the publicannouncement. Fifth, the data is released to the scientificcommunity. Sixth, any electromagnetic signals are sharedwith the relevant authority. Seventh, no one makes direct contact individually. Finally, the SETI Permanent Committee reviewsthese plans regularly to ensure their policies are up to date. This would be a logical and orderly approachto first contact - but would it work out that way? A friendly civilization might be here on amission of exploration, scientific curiosity, or friendship, but a hostile civilizationwould probably not announce themselves with dialogue or signals. Could humanity win a war with an unknown alienpower? Earth’s superpowers have a lot of powerfulweapons, but they’re designed for combat on Earth. 

If an alien civilization from outside thisgalaxy had the ability to travel this far to make contact and attack us, it’s likelythey have weapons far stronger than ours and ships made of far more durable material. We could fight, but the odds are that anywar would be over very quickly - and not in our favor. But how would humanity react to a friendlycivilization? The biggest problem any alien civilizationwould have when making contact is getting through our security. Most superpowers have air-defense systemsthat will detect any vessel entering their airspace, and shoot it down if it doesn’tidentify itself and stop when commanded. If the air defense system can shoot down analien vessel, that could put a very fast stop to first contact and send the aliens backhome with word not to mess with this planet. The aliens’ best bet to have a peacefullanding might be to land in Antarctica and make first contact with the penguins. But if aliens successfully made peaceful firstcontact with humanity, or the government confirmed they had made contact, it would cause a totalupheaval in almost every area of society. Have you ever gone shopping the day beforea snowstorm? Imagine that times ten, as everyone wouldbe convinced that an alien invasion would be coming and they’d better stock up. 

The uncertainty of an alien civilization makingcontact with Earth would make many people assume the worst was coming, and the questionis whether the government would know enough to assure them otherwise - and if they wouldbe willing to declassify the information. Religions would be instantly thrown into turmoil. How many faiths believe that God created humanityin His image? The presence of another, highly intelligentspecies making contact with us would throw that concept into doubt and lead many to questiontheir faith. Some would leave their faith, seeking answerselsewhere. Others would believe more fiercely than ever,insisting that the presence of aliens was a test for the faithful. And it’s likely that new faiths would springup around the alien visitors - after all, powerful and strange beings descending fromthe sky to make contact with us calls some powerful visuals to mind for the faithful. Or maybe religion would go on, business asusual. The Vatican for instance is itself a believerin extraterrestrial life, and has even toyed with the question of if aliens would needevangelizing should contact finally be made. In the Koran, Muhammad spoke of other ‘brothers’that God had made in other worlds, so maybe, possibly, religion wouldn’t be much botheredby alien life. Politically, the confirmation of aliens wouldcreate major changes in governments around the world. We would likely see closer cooperation betweenally nations and even rivals, as they would want to present a united front to any aliencivilization. 


After all, the fate of humanity’s futureinteraction with the stars could depend on making a good first impression. But what about enemy nations, especially thosein the middle of a war? Would it create a temporary truce, or wouldvarious parties try to play the aliens against their enemy? If the aliens were carrying advanced technologyor weapons, it would be tempting for an ambitious nation to try to get their hands on it beforeanyone else. One field that would be booming in the aftermathof alien contact is legal scholars. Every law on Earth is meant to apply to humansand Earth-based animals. What rights would aliens have on Earth? Would they be considered visitors, or invaders? If aliens made first contact by sending radiowaves, who owns the dispatches? And then there’s the question of what thegovernment chooses to share with us. Open-government advocates would be fightingto release all details of what the feds knew about aliens before first contact. Will we finally find out what’s in Area51? If alien technology arrived on Earth and thealiens were willing to share it with us - or we successfully shot down an unmanned alienprobe - scientists everywhere would be pressed into service. Both the government and corporations wouldtry to reverse-engineer the technology - and if it was a technology that had use on Earth,the company that cracked the code here would be rolling in money. Alien technology could be a market game-changerlike never seen before - which is why it’s just as likely that the government immediatelyseizes it, nationalizes it, and classifies it. 


But no sector would be busier in the aftermathof first contact than the media. This would be the biggest story in human history. If the aliens are still a mystery, becausehumanity is working out the details of first contact, every TV and movie studio would bescrambling to come up with their fictionalized version of the aliens. And if the aliens have made first contactwith the public, the race to get the first interview with them would be one of the biggestprizes imaginable for journalists. Once the aliens are known by humanity, theywould become massive celebrities. Any first contact with aliens would be a massiveculture shock for us - but it might be just as big a culture shock for the aliens. If you’re wondering if aliens have alreadymade contact with us, check out “Evidence that Aliens have made contact”. For more on what happens if the aliens aren’tfriendly, watch “How to defend Earth against an alien invasion”. Thanks for watching, and see you next time.


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