First Contact: What Happens When We Meet Aliens

How we respond to meeting life from another planet could determine the fate of humanity

A. S. Deller
Oct 29 · 8 min read

2:27 P.M. — Tomorrow — Here…

You are about to run out on a break to grab an afternoon coffee. Your day has been hectic so far, and you still have a few hours to go. You’re going to need a serious caffeine boost to keep from strangling someone.

Just as you are leaving, your phone vibrates like crazy and you pluck it out of a pocket to take a look. You think it’s going to be an AMBER Alert, which you receive occasionally.

Instead, you see the familiar gray alert box on your phone’s screen, with the exclamation point in a triangle, and the text:

Emergency Alert.

Unidentified Threat warning in this area until further notice. Take shelter below ground if possible. Check local media. — NWS

You immediately think “What the heck is an “Unidentified Threat” warning?”. And then you rush outside and look up at the sky, expecting to see a tornado or a meteor shower. It’s a normal, crisp blue sky.

So you check out the internet or turn on the television to find out more:

Apparently a large object has been detected moving toward Earth, on a direct course. Originally it was assumed to be an asteroid, but then, instead of plowing down through our atmosphere, it decelerated and fell into low Earth orbit. The object is now circling the planet like a satellite.

The first images of the object are distributed by amateur astronomers with access to powerful telescopes, and they show a silhouette as it passes in front of the moon. It appears very oddly-shaped, like some kind of tropical fruit. Based on these initial images, the astronomers estimate the object’s size at roughly 1000 meters across.

Strangely, no official word from your government has been made available. The news media are going wild with speculation, bringing on consultants and guests of every conceivable stripe to comment on the new arrival.

You can only imagine the conversations that must be going on behind closed doors and via encrypted communications, and hope that cool heads prevail…

Meeting the Neighbors, Interstellar-Style

If humanity survives long enough, it is inevitable that one day we will discover — or be discovered by — otherworldly life.

It’s out there, right now, in some number of nearly infinite possible forms, existing around some other star, light years away. There may even be some such life elsewhere in our own solar system.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science conducted a survey and believes the results show that if and when the people of Earth make contact with an alien race, we will by and large react in a calm and rational manner.

Another study agrees, published in Frontiers in Psychology, that humans might very well respond without causing a mass panic and hysteria. However, these results are based on definitively unthreatening events, such as the ultimately false report of fossil microbes on Mars, as well as speculation that is best represented by modern science fiction.

Rather than dwell in the dreams of people who actively pursue knowledge of alien civilizations and hope for the day to arrive when their existence is confirmed, we need to pull back and examine this potential event from the point of view of people who live in the “real” world, and those who live religious lives which, for them, is counterintuitive to the possibilities of otherworldly intelligences on par with humanity.

“How could he be God and leave extra-terrestrials in their sin? God chose a very specific way to redeem human beings. He sent his only Son, Jesus, to them… Did God do this for extra-terrestrials? There is deeply embedded in Christian theology… the notion of the universality of God’s redemption and even the notion that all creation, even the inanimate, participates in some way in his redemption.”

-George Coyne, 2010, Many Worlds: The New Universe, Extraterrestrial Life and the Theological Implications

Philip Klass’ short story “On Venus We Have a Rabbi!”, published in 1974, offers a humorous tale of the Interstellar Neozionist Conference, during which a Rabbinical court must decide whether or not to allow an alien species, the Bulbas of Rigel, to be allowed to join the Jewish faith since they are not human, and if they’re not human they cannot be Jewish. Ultimately the court decides in favor of the Bulbas, concluding “There are Jews — and there are Jews. The Bulbas belong in the second group.”

A study by Ted Peters, theology professor at Berkeley, found that 69% of non-religions people believe the discovery of ETI (extra-terrestrial intelligence) compared to 34% of people who identify as religious.

A common question, indeed, when it comes to an eventual confirmation and meeting with an alien intelligence is what will come of religion? Will religion come to an end as a powerful unifier of people in the face of a universe full of some combination of unknowns and emptiness?

War…or Peace?

Scientists and science fiction writers have been pondering the question of what might happen during a meeting of humanity with an alien civilization.

In the documentary Stephen Hawking’s Favorite Places, the late esteemed astrophysicist says:

“ As I grow older I am more convinced than ever that we are not alone. After a lifetime of wondering, I am helping to lead a new global effort to find out…The Breakthrough Listen project will scan the nearest million stars for signs of life, but I know just the place to start looking. One day we might receive a signal from a planet like Gliese 832c, but we should be wary of answering back.”

Despite Dr. Hawking’s support for trying to find signs that prove we are not alone, he was not a fan of actively trying to let those aliens know where, and what, we were. He says in the film, regarding what kind of aliens we might get an answer from:

“…they will be vastly more powerful and may not see us as any more valuable than we see bacteria.”

He was right. At this point in our technological development, we are newborns, barely crawling out into the cosmos, barely able to see beyond our Solar System in any very meaningful way, and failing at preserving our very own planet’s environment. A civilization that has become truly interstellar will likely have solved most, or all, of the problems we have encountered, as well as a host of difficulties we don’t yet even realize await us.

An extremely advanced alien species would probably not be traveling the Milky Way in search of more primitive species to use as slaves, or as a food source, as is often depicted in science fiction. They might, however, be seeking a new home or a place for a colony, or simply be seeking knowledge.

Our only real defense will be communication: Our ability to somehow let our visitors know that we harbor no ill intentions toward them. If our leaders panic, jump to conclusions, or otherwise miscalculate reactions, humanity would likely be doomed to either a quick demise or a long lasting devolution of our technological state.

Are we prepared?

Nick Pope, who worked for Great Britain’s Ministry of Defence for over 20 years and was partially responsible for investigating UFO claims on behalf of the UK government, believes we are not ready for the eventuality of first contact, even at the highest levels.

Pope drafted a plan in 2018 to outline the steps he believes governments and space agencies should take should one of three possibilities occur: the discovery of microbial or other simple life on a planet we explore; detection of signals of intelligent origin from space; and actual contact with some kind of extraterrestrial spacecraft or probe.

The primary concerns that Pope outlines some possible responses to include the outbreak of a pathogen of extraterrestrial origin; the protocol for distribution of advanced information that might arrive via alien radio transmission; and trying to establish communication with an alien craft while also mitigating any possible threat it could present. He goes into detail about these scenarios and the agencies involved in his paper, and it is well worth the read. For now it is only available via the Express news site.

We’ve already sent an introduction…

It’s now been 41 years since NASA launched the twin Voyager probes. Voyager I has passed out of our Solar System and is now hurtling through interstellar space, while Voyager II has performed flybys of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

Each Voyager carries a golden record. Each copy of the record holds over 100 images, a collection of nature sounds, bird and whalesong, musical selections from various cultures, greetings in 55 languages, samples of other sounds such as children’s laughter, and printed messages from President Jimmy Carter and then U.N. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim.

This Voyager spacecraft was constructed by the United States of America. We are a community of 240 million human beings among the more than 4 billion who inhabit the planet Earth. We human beings are still divided into nation states, but these states are rapidly becoming a single global civilization.

We cast this message into the cosmos. It is likely to survive a billion years into our future, when our civilization is profoundly altered and the surface of the Earth may be vastly changed. Of the 200 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, some — perhaps many — may have inhabited planets and spacefaring civilizations. If one such civilization intercepts Voyager and can understand these recorded contents, here is our message:

This is a present from a small distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts, and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours. We hope someday, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilizations. This record represents our hope and our determination, and our good will in a vast and awesome universe.

-President Jimmy Carter

Many of the images are scientific in nature, presenting concepts from physics and mathematics, DNA, human anatomy and information about our Solar System.

By NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory — NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Public Domain,

The idea behind the records is to put our “best foot forward”, offering a basic primer that an advanced species might be able to decipher and use to gain some understanding of humanity. This is a real possibility, and perhaps at some point ten, twenty, or a hundred thousand years in the future, these relics of Earth may be discovered and gazed upon by alien eyes, their sounds heard by alien ears, their concepts pondered by alien minds.

Will we still be here, on Earth, by then? Will we be able to receive and reply to any kind of message these interstellar neighbors choose to send back to us?

Can we be good stewards of Earth in the present in order to help guarantee a future which includes us among a galactic family?

Thank you for reading and sharing!

A. S. Deller

Written by

Startup product manager. Sci fi, Fantasy and Science writer.



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