What If We Discovered Alien Life?
Imagine what would happen if we discovered alien life. Extraterrestrial life may be out there. Let's find out what would happen if we discover we're not alone.Science
As legendary sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke once said: Two possibilities exist; either we are alone in the Universe, or we are not. Both are equally terrifying. Let's find out what would happen if we discover alien life someday.
Is Alien Life Possible?
Humans love to entertain the idea that we are not alone in the universe, and while that’s perfectly possible given the universe’s almost incalculable size, so far no evidence has yet been found to suggest that alien life exists anywhere close to Earth, least not in any intelligent or easily observable form.
This is the logical basis of the Fermi Paradox, which states that if the universe is so large and supposedly full of alien life, why hasn’t any been observed yet? So far, the Fermi Paradox has been upheld, but many scientists remain optimistic.
Early in 2019, NASA Chief Jim Bridenstine mentioned that complex organic molecules were recently discovered on Mars, along with biogenic methane gas and a huge lake of liquid water under the Red Planet’s south pole. According to the NASA Chief, the sum of these discoveries points to us being well on our way to discovering basic alien life within our own solar system.
The discovery of even a small handful of microbes would be a historic and monumental occasion for science and could suggest the possibility of interplanetary colonization. But what if scientists were to discover something much more complex? What if they intercepted a signal that contained undeniable proof that an intelligent, technologically advanced alien civilization existed?
What if they found intelligent alien lifeforms on one of our closest exoplanets, such as Proxima Centauri b or Gliese 667Cc? Let's investigate.
The Rio Scale
Let’s work from a premise that could well be possible in the future: humans discover alien life. In order to get some idea of what the consequences of such a discovery might be, it’s important to consider that such a discovery could take many forms. One of the best ways to examine such a discovery is by using the Rio Scale.
In the year 2000, this scale was proposed by SETI, the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, to quantify the impact of any public announcement regarding evidence of extra-terrestrial intelligence. The scale runs from 0-10, with 0 and 1 being None or Insignificant, and 10 being Extraordinary. If you want a 10, the phenomena detected must be an earth-specific message, or an ET artifact capable of contact or a physical encounter.
It must be observed and verified by SETI, must come from within the solar system, and has to be absolutely reliable. For the purposes of this question, I’ll have to settle for a 9, since searching just the solar system limits possible discoveries.
It makes more sense to increase the apparent distance to anywhere that allows communication at lightspeed within a human lifetime. This would allow for the discovery of alien life on an exoplanet that’s 70-80 lightyears away at most.
Exoplanets that Could Harbor Life
The Kepler space telescope, which operated from 2009 to 2018, found 2,343 candidate exoplanets, about 50 of which are orbiting in the not-too-hot, not-too-cold Goldilocks zone around their sun.
It’s estimated that there are around 10 billion potentially habitable planets in the Milky Way galaxy. The closest exoplanet in the conservative habitable zone is Proxima Centauri B, at a distance of only 4.22 lightyears away. Other planets, such as Gliese 667 Cc and Wolf 1061, are also potentially habitable, and only around 24 and 14 lightyears away respectively.
Planets like these are the most likely candidates for harboring alien life, though there are several risk factors that may negatively affect habitability on any given planet, such as tidal locking, where only one side of the planet ever faces the sun, or solar flares destroying the planet’s atmosphere.
Let’s imagine that alien life was discovered on Proxima Centauri B. Since in this case, it’s us who are doing the discovering, the most likely scenario would be that an institute similar to SETI intercepts a decipherable message that appears to be issuing from the Alpha Centauri system. This interception would rate at an 8 on the Rio Scale since the message would not be earth-specific, but rather omnidirectional and exploratory.
It would need to be consistent enough to maintain absolute credibility and verification as an extra-terrestrial message, instead of something like the Wow! Signal received in 1977, which is still considered an unexplained anomaly, and would have only scored a 2 at best on the Rio.
An intercepted signal like this would most likely be the first point of contact between human and alien life, which would ultimately constitute discovery. Say goodbye to Fermi’s Paradox.
At this point, it would be necessary to ask whether this alien species, which is advanced enough to transmit long-wave frequencies into space, is native to Proxima Centauri B. This is highly unlikely since the planet is subject to stellar wind pressures of more than 2,000 times those experienced by Earth from the solar wind, which would make abiogenesis or the natural process by which life rises out of non-living matter, almost impossible.
The only reason why an advanced alien species might be transmitting signals from Proxima Centauri b would be exploratory and communicative, so the assumption would be that these lifeforms, or more likely lifeform-operated probes, are representatives of a Type I or Type II civilization on the Kardashev scale.
The Kardashev scale measures a civilization’s technological advancement based on the amount of energy the civilization is able to harness and use. A type I, or planetary civilization, can use and store all of the energy available on its planet, and human civilization is only about three-quarters of the way there.
Type II civilizations can harness the total energy of their home planet’s parent star, presumably by using a hypothetical megastructure like a Dyson sphere, which is a spherical array of solar panels built around the sun to capture its total energy.
Finally, Type III civilizations can control energy at the scale of their entire host galaxy. These message-transmitting lifeforms would most likely be Type I or Type II, since a type III civilization would certainly discover us far before we discovered them.
Whether or not any of these advanced civilization types are in fact possible rests upon the concept of the Great Filter, which is an imagined endpoint through which no advanced civilization can pass without destroying itself.
Since there’s no point of comparison yet, the human race could either be ahead of the filter, having somehow passed through it successfully, or approaching it. Possible filters include climate change and overpopulation, and there could be more than one.
What Should We Do When We Find Aliens?
So, once it was established on Earth that there were alien lifeforms present on an exoplanet only 4.22 lightyears away, the United Nations and various other space-related institutions, such as the International Astronomical Union, would need to be informed.
After they confirmed that the signal was genuine, a number of decisions would need to be made. Do we send a message back? What should the message say? Do we send a probe? Do we send people?
The first question of whether we should send a message back is a tricky one. Any message we did send would take about four and a half years to reach Proxima B, and any message back would take the same amount of time again to reach us. Given this time delay, the only messages it would make sense to send would be along the lines of "Stay there. We’re on our way!".
However, that is pretty risky, considering it would take 6,300 years to travel the 4.2 lightyears to Proxima Centauri B at the current achievable space speed of 700,000 kilometers per hour set by the Parker Solar Probe. It would however only require a minimum starting crew size of 98, or 49 breeding pairs, to ensure that a properly-equipped multi-generational spacecraft would eventually reach the Alpha Centauri system.
The more realistic and much riskier message to send would be something like "These are our galactic coordinates… Come visit!"
As the late Stephen Hawking once said, "If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans." So would we risk an alien invasion in order to establish physical, visual contact with an advanced, space-faring civilization? The world might ignore Dr Hawking’s advice on this one.
Revealing Aliens to the World
After the necessary authorities had made their decision, the next step would be to broadcast this discovery to the world. How do you think the global population would receive the news? Surges in sales of tin foil hats? People desperately screaming "Take me with you!" into the sky?
According to a study conducted by Professor Michael Varnum of Arizona State University in 2018, people tend to respond positively to news that indicates the possible discovery of alien life, even if it is only a few microbes on Mars, or merely the drastic light fluctuations of Tabby’s Star that may or may not be proof of an active Dyson sphere. So just imagine the response if proof of actual intelligent life was found.
Despite all the sensationalist sci-fi that depicts the human race becoming riotous and hysterical, perhaps the most optimistic fictional account comes from Carl Sagan’s novel Contact, where he discusses the effect that an alien message from a nearby star system called Vega might have on world politics and hope for humanity.
Of this hypothetical society, he writes that "the air was full of possibility, a sense of new beginning", and that "there was a notable decline in… jingoistic rhetoric and puerile self-congratulatory nationalism."
In Contact, Sagan puts forward the idea that if something else is out there, while they might initially terrify, they could also serve to challenge humanity’s small-mindedness and bring about global unity as people become transfixed by the interplanetary conversation.
Contact with the Aliens
For the first 9 years or so, the conversation would seem to be pretty one-sided, and there’s every possibility that the alien probes departed Proxima B long before our messages got there. There is, however, the possibility that the civilization that receives the message is advanced enough to travel at the speed of light, or even able to open up a wormhole, meaning they could reach us far quicker than we could reach them.
Then, after 9 years, just as people had started to forget about the whole thing, and they arrive. In order to protect themselves from back contamination, which is when a vessel returns from a different environment bearing unwanted diseases, the advanced civilization would probably send probes to do their observation and communication for them, much like we do now.
There’s every possibility of forward contamination too, wherein the probes they send bring diseases from other planets they’ve visited on the way. Both parties would probably be quite careful about this, however, and communication would take place in a sterile environment.
Contrary to popular paranoia, it's unlikely that a highly advanced alien civilization would have any interest in our outdated fossil fuels and pathetic iron reserves. Why would they? They can harness the power of stars, and would probably be scouring the universe for the same reasons we do: to find signs of intelligent life and other habitable planets.
Communication would be very difficult to establish, perhaps impossible at first, and the finest codebreakers and linguists would work tirelessly to figure out their messages. It might take many years.
Would we ever find out what these beings look like? If they evolved in the same way humans did, then they would have to have a brain of sorts, though any biological variations otherwise would depend on the environment of their home planet.
Could they be intelligent clouds of gas? Would we even be able to see them? It may be that they were once a race of carbon-based lifeforms that have since made themselves into a race of sentient machines, who are now capable of traveling great distances, collecting information from all over the universe to add to some titanic library.
In whatever form they came, there’s one thing that’s without doubt: the human race would learn an unbelievable amount and be changed immeasurably, for better or for worse, depending on the intentions of the new arrivals. From the technology they may bring, to the ideas, knowledge, and advancements they may reveal to us.
And who’s to say alien life hasn’t discovered us already? It’s impossible to know with much certainty what chain of events might be set off by the discovery of intelligent life, so for now we’ll just have to keep my fingers crossed for microbes on Mars. And who knows: those microbes might tell us far more than ever expected.
If you were amazed at what would happen if we discovered alien life one day, you might want to read our article about the best evidence proving aliens exist. Thanks for reading!