Let it be known that for, I don’t know, twenty-four to thirty-six hours, humanity pretended to sort of stand united in appointing an ambassador to maybe represent us to possible extraterrestrial life.
As was reported by many a news outlet on Sunday, astrophysicist Mazlan Othman, head of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, was announced to have been appointed by the U.N. to direct first contact with any intelligent extraterrestrial life.
The Guardian called shenanigans and verified that the story was false. However, the idea itself is not new, and some organizations have already taken real steps towards first contact protocols.
As the organization most actively looking for interplanetary dance partners, SETI already has first contact protocols covered. Their nine-step list basically sums itself up into one directive: OMG do not pick up the phone!! Much like the IRS, or a suitor you are trying to avoid, don’t let aliens know that you are getting their messages until you are absolutely ready to handle the situation.
The Institute also has a handy list of people to notify in the case of a credible extraterrestrial message: the International Astronomical Union, the Secretary General of the United Nations, the International Telecommunication Union, the Committee on Space Research, of the International Council of Scientific Unions, the International Astronautical Federation, the International Academy of Astronautics, the International Institute of Space Law, Commission 51 of the International Astronomical Union and Commission J of the International Radio Science Union.
Considering the fake alien ambassador announcement, one would think that the United Nations already has plans for outer space company. Or, that at least it would, if it ever followed up on its 2005 to-do list item of drawing up protocol for “international process relating to possible communication with any eventually discovered extraterrestrial civilization.”
The closest the U.N. has come to addressing this matter was in 1968, when Article XI of the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Bodies was drafted. The Treaty establishes jurisdiction over space and requires that the Secretary-General be notified of all celestial activities. However, this Treaty was never ratified by any of the nations that currently engage in active space exploration, so it’s potency is questionable. Because of the relative silence from the U.N. regarding this issue, appointing an ambassador to represent humanity seems like a very unlikely step for the governing body to take.
We can speculate that NASA, the European Space Agency, the Russian space program, and the various military branches of the world’s superpowers have plans in place if any of their respective nations or organizations encounter extraterrestrials. It would be weirder if they didn’t, considering how over-prepared one must be just to get safely into space. Until we are made privy to those plans, however, they remain speculation. (First rule of first contact? Don’t talk about first contact.)
The same goes for the Vatican, although their team of twelve astronomers is perhaps the most visibly excited at the prospect of receiving out-of-systemers*. One of those astronomers, and curator of the Vatican's meteorite collection, Guy Consolmagno, was quoted two weeks ago as being “delighted” at the prospect of finding intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, as he considers the concept of aliens as theologically sound. He went on to give perhaps the best quote one can give as a Vatican astronomer being heckled about alien baptism by reporters: “Any entity—no matter how many tentacles it has—has a soul.”
*No offense is intended to any complex, intelligent extraterrestrial life hiding within our solar system. We cool, Europa?
This post is by no means a catch-all for the planet’s organizations and their plans for first contact (and, by all means, if you have more info please post it in the comments!) but the little covered here already underscores a variety of approaches to extraterrestrial contact. From spiritual; to defensive; to bureaucratic; practical; cautiously hopeful, and beyond.
We are a pretty awesome carbon life form, all things considered. Our fiction is deep and varied; we had the good sense to bring Futurama back onto the airwaves; and I’m pretty sure we have the coolest Large Hadron Collider around. There is every reason for another lifeform to contact us, so we better have some guidelines handy.
Photo of Mazlan Othman by Dan Birchall used under Creative Commons license
Chris Greenland just hopes a Zapp-Brannigan-level of first contact can be avoided.