Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute, an organization leading ongoing efforts to detect possible radio signals from intelligent extraterrestrial civilizations, has warned that there are no government-level action plans in place in case aliens show up.
During an interview with Live Science, Shostak addressed a key issue of interest to scientific researchers in the SETI field: How humans might communicate with intelligent extraterrestrial species at first contact and what would likely happen if humans make radio contact with aliens or if Earth is visited by spaceships from technologically superior extraterrestrial civilizations.
Do we have a plan?
"There are some protocols, but I think that's an unfortunate name, and it makes them sound more important than they are," Shostak told Live Science.
The SETI scientist was referring to the so-called "post-detection protocols" designed to guide researchers in the SETI field who watch for possible intelligent transmissions of extraterrestrial origin.
The original protocols were drawn up in the 1980s. But Shostak noted that they were meant only to guide and encourage U.S. and Soviet researchers to share information about potential SETI sources and signals. The protocols were not meant as a global or government-level action plan to respond in the event of an alien contact, communication or visitation.
The protocols, according to Shostak, say that "If you pick up a signal, check it out... tell everybody... and don't broadcast any replies without international consultation."
"But that's all that the protocols say, and they have no force of law," he continued. "The United Nations took a copy of the early protocols and put them in a file drawer somewhere, and that's as official as they ever got."
Shostak lamented that humanity is wholly unprepared for an alien visitation event. He accused the U.S. government of not taking SETI's work seriously and of showing no interest in SETI research.
"[SETI] is not a government program, so they have nothing to do with it," Shostak said. "I would love to see some interest from them, but I never have."
"As far as I know, there's nothing [no plans], and I think I would have heard something because of the [SETI] false alarms," he told Live Science. "Some people asked me at a conference last week, 'What plan does the military have to deal with aliens should they land?' And I said, 'I don't know... but to the best of my knowledge, they don't have a plan."
Shostak also dismissed existing folklore about "Men in Black" who are depicted in sci-fi movies as shadowy government agents who conduct secret investigations and deal clandestinely with alien and UFO cases.
"If [the government] could afford the 'Men in Black,' then they could afford to support SETI," he said.
According to Shostak, an incident in 1997 illustrates the lack of government interest in SETI issues.
SETI researchers detected a signal from space that looked so promising that many experts in the field thought it could really be an alien signal, Shostak said.
"I kept waiting for the 'Men in Black' to show up — they didn't," he said. "I kept waiting for the Pentagon to call. I kept waiting for the White House to call. They didn't call. But The New York Times called."
The "signal" turned out to be from a European research satellite.
But according to Live Science, there is evidence that the U.S. government has made efforts in the past to draw up a plan of action in case of alien contact in any form. The website cites a book, titled "Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence and Civilization," published in 1979 by scientist Robert Freitas.
The book claimed that a military briefing was held in 1950 where government planners outlined a possible action plan in the event of alien contact.
The plan was dubbed "Seven Phases to Contact."
"[But] As far as I know, there's nothing, and I think I would have heard something because of the [SETI] false alarms."Shostak believes that the first contact with aliens would occur most likely through radio signals from sources light years away. But he also believes that any action plan drawn up to deal with the relatively unlikely scenario of an alien spaceship visitation or invasion would likely prove ineffective because aliens that are able to travel over vast intergalactic distances to Earth would be much more technologically advanced than humans.
Drawing up an action plan to confront a technologically superior extraterrestrial civilization would likely prove futile because of the challenges of even imagining the contingencies of such a scenario.
"It would be like the Neanderthals having a plan in case the US Air Force showed up."
And despite the government's apparent lack of interest in the matter, some scientists have engaged in serious conversation about the implications of contacting a technologically superior extraterrestrial civilization.
The discussions prompted the widely reported warning by British astrophysicist Stephen Hawking that "active SETI" programs designed to transmit messages to aliens are potentially dangerous because they could draw the attention of superior technological extraterrestrial civilizations with intentions we are incapable of anticipating.
But Shostak pointed out that Hawking's concerns about broadcasting our presence to potential extraterrestrial threats might have come too late. Humanity has been broadcasting its presence to space for decades through radio and television signals.
"Those signals have been going out into space since the Second World War, so we've already told them we're here," Shostak said.
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