Let’s say your house is on fire, or overrun by a gang of psychotic raccoons. You don’t hesitate—you take out your phone, and you call the fire department, or animal control, and then firemen/raccoon-wranglers are promptly dispatched to your home. These are well-established protocols, essential to the maintenance of a mostly not-on-fire, feral-animal-free society.
But what about UFOs? What about extraterrestrial beings? Faced with some six-eyed slime-being rooting through your trash, or a spacecraft idling above your backyard (provided it’s not Elon Musk’s “nuclear alien UFO” again), who exactly would you think to call? And what would whoever you called do, when you called them?
These questions—suddenly pressing, what with the recent revelation that the Pentagon had spent £16.5 million between 2008 and 2012 to investigate mysterious, potentially alien-related phenomena—form the basis of this week’s Giz Asks. We reached out to dozens of agencies, everyone from NASA to the Centre for Disease Control to the NYPD to find out who to call in such a situation, and what (if any) protocols are in place when these things are reported, and we came up mostly empty-handed—though the astronomers and independent institutes we spoke with did provide us with some hope. The US government might, at present, be grievously ill-prepared for first contact, but there are countless hobbyists and professionals keeping an eye on what’s happening up there.
Senior Astronomer, SETI (Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence) Institute
We [at SETI] are looking for life in space, but we don’t think that they’re here. If they were, you’d have trouble flying out of Newark airport.
When people call to report something they’ve seen, that call usually goes to me. Probably once a day I talk to somebody who’s seen something, and I explain to them that we don’t take such reports, but that if they want to send me photos or videos I’m happy to look at them.
But, you know: They’ve seen something in the sky, they don’t understand what it is, and of course then they jump to the conclusion that what they’ve seen are alien visitors.
The usual excuse is: “Well, the government has all the good information covered up somewhere.” That’s something that doesn’t comport with my experience working with the government, nor does it make sense. I mean: “Ah, the aliens arranged things so that only the government could see them.” It doesn’t make any sense.
Most of [what people send me] are aircraft, or balloons—there’s just a whole laundry list. If they send me photos or videos, they’re almost always taken at night—you can’t really tell what you’re looking at. And usually they’re using their phones, or some simple camera that has auto-focus. As a consequence, because it’s night, and it’s only a light in the middle of the phone [screen], the camera’s auto-focus mechanism starts hunting—it sort of zooms in and out on the focus and as a consequence the light seems to get bigger or smaller. When it’s big, you see all these diffraction effects on the image, which people send me elaborate descriptions of—you know, “here are the markings on the craft, I think I can decode them,” that sort of thing.
We don’t tell them, oh, well, you’re wrong—I don’t know if they’re wrong or not. All I can say is the evidence has not been good enough. I can’t say that I’ve ever seen anything where I’ve thought: omigosh, these are aliens. We think that the aliens are definitely out there, but on planets around other stars, not in the skies over Trenton.
So I usually tell them that they can look up MUFON—which is an acronym for Mutual UFO Network—which does reports, although there are tens of thousands of reports every year, so they probably can’t handle all of them.
Deputy Chief Timothy J. Trainor
The CO of the Public Information Division, New York Police Department
The NYPD is responsible to keep 8.5 million residents and commuters safe every day. This now includes the very real threat of a terrorist attack on innocent people who live and work in this great city. I am recommending that the “journalists” who write for Gizmodo shift their focus to featuring to their readers how the men and women of the NYPD work tirelessly to keep New Yorkers safe. To even suggest that the NYPD engage in such frivolous and meaningless drivel is insulting.
Public Affairs Team Lead, Centres for Disease Control
UFOs are not in the scope of research work performed by the CDC. We suggest you reach out to NASA for any information regarding UFOs.
We normally send folks to DOD. While we do not know yet if we are alone in the universe, NASA has missions moving forward that may help answer that fundamental question.
Catharine “Cassie” Conley
Former Planetary Protection Officer, currently a researcher at NASA
That would depend if it’s a big alien or a little alien. If it’s an intelligent alien, that’s actually the in the realms of the Air Force, other militaries and probably the UN. If it’s a tiny alien, you wouldn’t know you ran into it.
88th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
To be honest, we don’t have any guidance here about such an event. You might be able to get more from the Pentagon Press Desk, but I’m not sure.
Director of Science and Technology, The Planetary Society
If you find an alien, who do you call?
There are several cases to consider:
1. You detect what you think might be an intelligent alien signal coming from space. You are probably a SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) scientist. As such, the first thing you do is try to verify the signal by doing more observations and you “call” other SETI observers to try to get them to observe the same part of the sky at the same wavelength of light. No SETI scientist is going to believe a single signal is ET rather than some spurious effect from the equipment or the surroundings. Multiple signals from the same place in the sky observed by different observatories will be required, as well as careful verification that it is not some other natural signal. Once verification has occurred, you “call” everyone, announcing publicly the signal as well as all details associated with it so others can study and verify it.
2. You detect evidence of past or present life, probably microbial, elsewhere in our solar system, e.g. on Mars, or in the subsurface oceans of Jupiter’s moon Europa or Saturn’s moon Encelladus. You are probably an astrobiologist working with spacecraft data from one of the world’s space agencies. The first step is verifying your finding and publishing (as well as publicly announcing) your results so others can verify or otherwise assess your finding. So, figuratively call other scientists. There is obviously a theme here of being careful with a finding this significant. As Carl Sagan said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”.
3. You find an alien yourself, in person, like in the movie E.T. or other movies where it didn’t work out as well. In this case of alien emergency, hang up and dial 911, and hope they believe you. And, personally, I’d call your dog. Dogs are probably good judges of alien intent.
What is the protocol? Is there any?
For the same 3 cases:
1. There is not a binding protocol, but most SETI scientists have agreed to one set out by the International Academy of Astronautics. Included are policies of public openness and transparency, verification/confirmation, and the principle of not sending any message back without agreement from an international body such as the United Nations.
2. For spacecraft exploration, there are protocols regarding planetary protection: protecting the Earth from danger, unlikely as it may be, from the discovered life, and protecting the environment where life might be discovered from confusion caused by contamination from Earth life. Among these planetary protection guidelines is the international planetary protection policy from COSPAR (Committee on Space Research).
3. To my knowledge, there is no protocol for who to call if you find an alien on Earth. Once again, I suggest consulting with your dog.
Director of the Berkeley Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence centre
When astronomers see something that they think is interesting, they notify other astronomers. (These aren’t necessarily professional astronomers—they could very well be amateur astronomers, using small telescopes in their backyards.) There’s a mechanism in astronomy for sharing this kind of information, called the Astronomer’s Telegram. For example, when our group, back in late August, detected fifteen bursts from the repeating FRB [Fast Radio Burst] source, FRB 121102, we wrote a short Astronomer’s Telegram and released it to all of our colleagues to encourage follow-up—at other wavelengths and with other radio telescopes—to see if we could detect additional bursts.
One other example, also very timely, is what happened with ‘Oumuamua, the first interstellar asteroid. This object was detected by the PanSTARRS 1 [telescope], and they released a minor planet bulletin, which is similar to an Astronomer’s Telegram, but a special version for asteroids. They encouraged additional follow-up of the object, and of course that additional follow-up eventually determined that the object was indeed interstellar, and that it was likely an asteroid rather than a comet. And in fact it encouraged our group in Berkeley to actually follow it up from the perspective of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
The continued observations of Tabby’s Star, the so-called megastructure star, is another great example of this. Here’s a situation in which members of the public, participating in a citizen’s science programme, discovered something in archival data—they saw a signal coming from a particular star that they didn’t understand. Astronomers who were involved in that project got involved, and that ultimately triggered a huge amount of follow-up observation all over the world, culminating just in the last couple of months with the determination that there’s what’s called a wavelength dependence to the dimming of that star, which means that it bends more at short wavelengths than it does at long wavelengths, and that’s been interpreted—rightfully so, I think—to indicate that the likely cause of that dimming is interstellar dust, or perhaps circumstellar dust, dust that’s just orbiting around the star. We absolutely do have mechanisms in place to respond to things that are discovered, and most of the time discoveries are made by professional observatories, but sometimes the public is involved and the Tabby’s Star thing is a good example of that.
Chair of the Astronomy Department at Harvard
There is currently no procedure decided by the community, including the government, as to what needs to be done in case of the detection of signals from some extraterrestrial civilisation. UFOs were and are reported routinely, but there has been no credible evidence in the past for anything significant, so these are usually dismissed.
There is currently no procedure, no protocol, as to how to approach it. What would happen, presumably, is it would very quickly leak to the news media, or the public. It would not be kept secret.
The question is how to react, and what consequences of such a discovery would be. That depends on whether this thing is detected coming from far away—the signal is originating far away—or is it here on earth, nearby. If it’s far away, then there is no urgency and one can decide whether to respond at all—there are people who think that we take a risk if we reveal our existence. If it’s something very nearby, then of course it needs to reach political levels as well as to what to do.
But as of now there are no formal protocols as to how to respond, and part of that is because most people do not regard that as a likely situation. Usually, once there is an incident of some sort, people develop a policy about it. But it’s sort of under the radar (right now), and people are not really thinking about it. It would be a good idea to develop a strategy, just to have it in the books, but even then the question is whether people will obey (the protocol), because if it’s an amateur that detects the signal they may not follow it.
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Additional reporting by Bucky Turco and Ryan Mandelbaum.