What if our search for aliens goes horribly wrong? Astronomers weigh in
“The point people miss is that it's too late to hide”
Are we alone in the universe? Probably not, but that’s not the only alien-related question for which astronomers are seeking answers.
As we inch closer in our search for extraterrestrial life that may exist on another planet, some are wary of making contact with alien civilizations while others are welcoming of an interstellar teleconference.
In a recent interview with The Guardian, string theorist Michio Kaku stated that while the chances of making contact with aliens are high, reaching out to them would be a “terrible idea.” (Others disagree, arguing that alien civilizations will likely pose no threat to us.)
Kaku cited the much-anticipated launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which is currently slated for October 31, as an indication of how far we have come in the ongoing quest to find aliens.
The JWST will observe exoplanets in infrared wavelengths that astronomers have never examined them in before, allowing them to make far more detailed observations of alien worlds.
“That’s why I think the chances are quite high that we may make contact with an alien civilization,” Kaku tells The Guardian. “There are some colleagues of mine that believe we should reach out to them. I think that’s a terrible idea.”
Therein lies the debate. To use the slang of text messaging, do we leave aliens on read?
How do we make contact with aliens?
In 1960, astronomer Frank Drake began the search for alien signals being sent to us from beyond the Solar System. At the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, Virginia, Drake pointed a radio telescope toward two nearby Sun-like stars, Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani, which seemed like good candidates for hosting habitable worlds.
After observing the stars for 150 hours over the course of four months, Drake’s initial hunt for alien life was unsuccessful. However, the initial observations launched our modern-day search for alien civilizations that is ongoing today.
That initial experiment led to the foundation of the SETI (Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence) Institute in Mountain View, California. The non-profit organization searches for narrow-band radio transmissions from other planets.
The SETI method is based on the idea that life not only developed on another planet but that it evolved the same way that life did on Earth, advancing enough to create modern-day technology.
Andrew Siemion, director of the Berkeley SETI Research Center and principal investigator for the Breakthrough Listen project, has been listening to the cosmos to detect direct emissions from alien technology since 2012.
“The search for extraterrestrial intelligence almost exclusively uses what we call remote sensing methodologies,” Siemion tells Inverse. “We basically use large telescopes to try to detect a particular type of electromagnetic radiation that we know to only arise from technology.”
Astronomers hunting for these signals use optical telescopes, infrared telescopes, and radio telescopes to detect technologies that uses the same physics that we use on Earth.
However, the SETI method relies on listening in to the cosmos, rather than reaching out to aliens.
“So the search for extraterrestrial intelligence is almost exclusively an entirely passive activity,” Siemion says.
On the other hand, some astronomers believe in sending out signals so that Earth can be detectable as well, rather than waiting to listen in on another civilization’s signals.
“What happens if every civilization out there is doing that, we are just listening and not transmitting,” Vakoch tells Inverse. “It will be an incredibly quiet universe.”
The METI organization sent out its first radio transmission in 2017, and they are currently in the process of building a laser transmitter to reach further distances by encoding messages into narrowly-focused bandwidths.
However, not everyone is on board with the idea of transmitting our own signals into the universe.
“We have no reason to believe that technological advancement and altruism or morality are somehow linked.”
“Now, personally, I think that aliens out there would be friendly but we can’t gamble on it,” Kaku tells The Guardian in that interview published on April 3. “So I think we will make contact but we should do it very carefully.” Prior to his death, astrophysicist Stephen Hawking also warned against making our presence known.
Some believe that METI is taking on a huge liability, assigning themselves the role of being the first to contact an alien civilization, even if the message is coded in ones and zeros.
“The ethical issue is that they’re taking a great risk on behalf of all of mankind without asking mankind for any permission,” Gertz tells Inverse.
Others also criticize METI for not being very effective.
“As a civilization, we have been leaking radio signals into the universe for the last 100 years and we do so continually, and with greater and greater frequency,” Siemion says. “And so, if another civilization were looking at Earth, they would surely see these signals that we are just incidentally leaking out into space by virtue of all of the activities that take place.”
“And so you have to kind of ask the question, well, what kind of incremental increase in detectability that some intentional transmission would actually bring to the Earth,” he adds.
Siemion also says that we do have to consider that another technologically advanced civilization could potentially be evil.
“We have no reason to believe that technological advancement and altruism or morality are somehow linked,” he says. “There probably are malevolent civilizations elsewhere in the universe so that's certainly something that we should consider as we continue to explore the universe.”
But Vakoch says that any civilization that has the potential to harm the Earth already knows we are here, so we might as well initiate a friendly conversation in hopes of getting on their good side.
“The point people miss is that it's too late to hide,” Vakoch says. “If they are on their way then it's to our advantage to engage them and show them that we make better conversational partners than lunch.”