If Mars Attacks …
Do we have an alien-contact contingency plan?
The Chinese government has promised to investigate the unidentified flying object that forced Xiaoshan Airport to delay 18 flights last week. Tabloids rushed to cover the incident, with the U.K. Sun making a gratuitous "alien craft" reference, and video footage on YouTube led to numerous comments regarding the existence of extraterrestrial life. What if aliens were to make contact—do we have an E.T. contingency plan?
Sort of. The U.S. government is not particularly interested in alien planning. Starting in 1947, the Air Force made a formal study of UFOs but stopped investigations in 1969 after having failed to uncover any evidence of extraterrestrial vehicles or of a threat to national security. In 1992, the government paid for a SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) project through NASA—the Microwave Observing Program's mission was to conduct targeted analyses of nearby stars—but deemed it unworthy of funding one year later. There is, however, a nongovernmental organization established by the International Academy of Astronautics to "prepare, reflect on, manage, advise, and consult in preparation for … a putative signal of extraterrestrial intelligent (ETI) origin." That organization, the SETI: Post-Detection Taskgroup helmed by the theoretical physicist Paul Davies, has a set of recommendations in place.
The protocol, adopted in 1989, is that if someone detects a radio signal seemingly indicating that we're not alone, he should get in touch with SETI researchers, who will help him verify whether the signal is really and truly evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence. At that point, he should notify the International Astronomical Union as well as the United Nations and relevant research organizations. On the finders-keepers principle, the discoverer would get to make the first public announcement, but data should be made available to the international scientific community. (Source coordinates, however, would be kept secret, to avoid a situation in which anyone with a radio telescope could start up a conversation.) The next step would be figuring out whether a response signal were warranted and, if so, what message to send—a process that would involve not just scientists but other experts and government appointees. Probably something very simple would be best, like numbers in binary code. (You can hear Davies discuss this issue with Ira Glass on a recent episode of This American Life.)
In the farfetched Hollywood scenario wherein we detect an alien spaceship or aliens send us a Greetings, Earthlings!-type message—all bets are off. (If the Pentagon or some such has a plan for how to deal with contact, it's classified.) Naturally the response would hinge on the nature of the contact: peaceful or violent, needy (give us fossil fuels) or helpful (cold fusion). Many scientists, including Stephen Hawking, believe that contact with intelligent aliens would end badly for us—we'd be the Native Americans to the alien Europeans. "I imagine they might exist in massive ships," Hawking said recently, "having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonize whatever planets they can reach."
Lacking official protocol, those worried about first contact can turn to the very unofficial Introduction to Planetary Defense: A Study of Modern Warfare Applied to Extra-Terrestrial Invasion. Like Hawking, the authors believe humans would play the part of Native Americans circa 1492. They also think that, in light of the sluggish global response to natural disasters, there's little indication that we could react effectively to invasion. Since we'll probably be technologically outmatched, the best defense strategy would be guerilla warfare.
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Explainer thanks Michael Michaud of the International Academy of Astronautics.
Juliet Lapidos is a former Slate associate editor.
Photograph of a "UFO" by by China Photos/Getty Images.