Space Exploration

If we contact aliens, how should we respond?
Answered by Jill Tarter
  • Jill Tarter

    Jill Tarter

  1. Jill Tarter Director, Center for SETI Research, SETI Institute


    What do you do if you find a signal, and how do you react? At the SETI Institute we started as a NASA project, so we had to have a post-detection protocol, a series of steps laid out that we were going to take, that the various associate administrators were going to take, and who was going to tell the executive branch of the government, and who was going to tell the congressional funding committees and who was going to tell the world, etc.

    Well, now we're not a NASA program. We're a nonprofit, but we still need to think through what we do with this information because a signal isn't coming to the SETI Institute. It isn't coming to California. It's coming to the planet Earth, and that information is rightly the property of all humankind. So first of all you want to do your science well, you want to make sure that this isn't a hoax. And so you figure out a way to get an independent confirmation with equipment you didn't build and software you didn't write.

    Once you've done that, if it's possible – and for many reasons it might not turn out to be possible, so then you've got to go with Plan B. You write up the scientific paper, you send out an IAU telegram to all the observatories in the world saying, "We've seen this phenomenon. We think it's evidence of an extraterrestrial technology. You've got equipment. Use it. Look in different ways. See what you see."

    And so you get a professional community completely comfortable and knowledgeable about the discovery information, so that when you take the next step and hold a press conference to tell the world, then you've got already individuals in all local communities that can serve as resources for the global press who aren't going to be able to call up and say, "What did you find?" You'll have experts who are perhaps best trained of anyone we could think of to interpret what's actually been found for their local media. And maybe in that way we can get the real story out, rather than journalists having to make up a story because they know this is big, but they don't really understand it.

    So we send out the IAU telegram to all the observatories in the world and we schedule a press conference. And there you have to think about making sure that everybody who is involved gets the appropriate attribution. Because this is going to be big, and you don't want to leave anybody out. That would be awful. So then you tell the world, and you see what the world wants to do. At the SETI Institute we've said that we would not send a signal in reply until there is some sort of global consensus about whether we should and, if so, who gets to speak for Earth and what do they get to say?

    So that's the moral high ground. And we've signed up to that. And whenever I'm near Freeman Dyson and I get into this description, he just chuckles, and he says, "Oh Jill." He said, "You know the moment you tell the world that you've detected a signal and these are the characteristics, anybody who can possibly get their hands on a transmitter of any kind will, and they'll say whatever the hell they please. This 'let's have some global consensus and let's be very deliberate about this' is going to go out the window. People aren't like that." And then he chuckles again and he says, "You know, and just imagine the great cacophony. And wouldn't that be about the best characterization of 21st century Earth that you could send?"

    I don't know what happens. Carl Sagan might have gotten it close to right, you know, in the movie Contact. There's this huge encampment around the observatory, with all kinds of fanatics and crazy people and people who want to be part, and it's a big circus with a lot of religious fanatics. Maybe that's what it'll be like. But that is our plan. We are going to make sure we get it right, that it's not a hoax, we're going to involve the professional community around the world to help us get the story out, and we're going to tell the world what we think we found.

    More answers from Jill Tarter »

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