When you find yourself in an unexplored wilderness, it is better to keep quiet as you never know if dangerous predators might be lurking. Unfortunately, the earth has not yet followed this warning principle: We have been sending radio waves into space for more than a century. If, within a hundred light years, there are technological civilizations monitoring their skies with radio telescopes similar to ours, then they may already know about our existence. We might hear from you in the future. Our salvation could be that chemical missiles, similar to the Voyager or New Horizons missions, would take a million years to traverse those hundred light years. And so we could be curious for a long time before we meet our cosmic neighbors.
When aliens arrive on our doorstep at some point, the question is: how should we react? Obviously, interstellar issues are not an immediate political concern of any nation right now, so there is no United Nations international protocol on what to do. We should keep in mind that within a million years humans could possibly be living on the moon, Mars or free-floating space platforms and each community could choose to react differently. It is premature to think about global politics long before it is necessary.
How much warning will we have? This depends on the size of the vehicle used by the ETs. Even without artificial light, any alien spaceship would reflect sunlight. The Pan-STARRS Observatory in Hawaii can detect reflected sunlight from objects larger than a few hundred feet, the size of a soccer field, moving in orbit around the sun. The first interstellar visitor of this size was spotted by this telescope on October 19, 2017 and referred to in the Hawaiian language as “Oumuamua -” Pathfinder. “The object exhibited many anomalous properties that set it apart from any natural comet or asteroid we have seen before in the solar system, and the possibility allowed it to be a product of alien technology, as described in my new book. Extraterrestrial.
If so, the question is, is it likely to be a probe meant to spy on us? The chances are slim, as it took Oumuamua more than 10,000 years to cross the entire solar system and our civilization apparently stopped sending signals in that time. Even if ‘Oumuamua is an artificial craft, it is ancient and probably out of order. Most stars formed billions of years before the sun, and the technological relics that their civilizations brought into space are likely too old to be functional. We can get more information about technological relics by taking close-ups or looking for unusual objects on the surface of the moon (or Mars) that have accumulated there over the past billions of years. The lack of an atmosphere or geological activity would make the lunar surface a museum for extraterrestrial equipment in particular.
Are we the smartest kid on our cosmic block? To find out, we should keep our eyes peeled and look for items from our closest neighbors in our telescopes, although as a precaution we should hit a ship disguised as a Trojan horse. There may be many small, fast moving objects that are constantly moving through the solar system that we cannot see due to the limited sensitivity of our telescopes. It would be interesting to look for them in future data streams from the Vera C. Rubin Observatory’s Large Survey of Space and Time (LSST), which will begin monitoring the Chilean skies in less than three years. In addition, my student Amir Siraj and I showed that a global network of several hundred optical cameras on Earth can identify flares from interstellar meteors entering the Earth’s atmosphere at an unusually high speed of up to the speed of light.
The Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) only discovered gravitational waves after the National Science Foundation (NSF) invested $ 1.1 billion in them. Likewise, we should expect to find exceptional evidence of ETs only after investing large funds in a search. Given the huge impact such a discovery would have on society, the most appropriate would be to dedicate taxpayers’ money to finding our cosmic neighbors – well beyond the effects of discovering gravitational waves. When we pick up a piece of alien technology, it changes the way we perceive our place in the universe, our pursuit of space, and our philosophical and theological beliefs. Our psychological shock would be similar to what my daughters encountered when they met children who were smarter than they were on their first day of kindergarten.
Or we could choose not to know our neighbors until they show up. This would be tantamount to my daughters’ decision to stay home. The possible existence of ETs will not go away if we ignore them, as the earth continued to move around the sun after the religious authorities refused to look through Galileo’s telescope. The dinosaurs ruled the planet for many millions of years, but their rule came to an abrupt end 66 million years ago when the giant Chicxulub rock appeared in the sky on a collision course with Earth.
This is an opinion and analysis article.