Extraterrestrial Contact: How Close to Discovery Are We?

Christiaan Patterson

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It might seem that since humanity’s technological gismos have evolved at such a rapid pace, there would be no further interest in outside worlds. For the collective bunch, this may appear to be true, however, scientists are feverishly working on contact with extraterrestrials.

In the January 2011 edition of Scientific American, I stumbled across an article written by Tim Folger about contacting civilizations in other galaxies. Curiosity sparked my interest since questions of “are we alone in the universe?” have plagued my mind from childhood.

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia, houses a 100 meter wide satellite which is the globe’s largest steerable dish in existence. It tracks the entire sky except for five degrees above the horizon that equates to roughly 170 degrees north to south or east to west.

So far, contact has remained an unfulfilled desire of astronomers worldwide.

Despite the unsuccessful outreach, astronomers have protocol to follow if an outside world is ever detected. Would these set guidelines be followed to a “T” if it happened? An event about 13 years ago put these protocols to the test.

Jill Tarter, director of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence or SETI, received a signal one morning and used all protocol to confirm if it was a false alarm or not. Everything ruled out a mistake so she continued to track the signal. When the star she believed to be transmitting fell beyond the 5?, Tarter knew something was suspicious.

It turned out the signal had been coming from a NASA satellite rather than the outside world. This event gave astronomers a good idea of what would take place in the occurrence aliens are detected. In all the excitement that day, word had leaked to the press and media was flocking to report at lightning speed.

One of the largest challenges and questions that hinder contact is how to translate such signal into our language. John R. Elliot, researcher of AI and language structure, devised a computer program that breaks down an unknown language by comparing it to about 60 human languages.

ET signal would arrive in a binary system containing zeros and ones. This would determine the IQ of whatever was transmitting. Elliot honestly admitted that we may never be able to decipher an actual message. I’m not sure I would want to know what an outside being was trying to communicate

As technology evolves, contacting outside worlds seems to be more plausible than one may think. In just a few decades, these astronomers are expecting to view 10 million stars, which steeply raises the chances of detecting other civilizations.

As much as we want to know the answer to the question that has been asked for thousands of years, I’m not sure if we as humans could comprehend such a notion with an open mind. Panic and fear are the basic reactions to the unknown. Curiosity and intrigue would ignite my mind, but I am unsure if they would be mixed with fear.

Scientists have different views and concerns about attempting to contact alien life, as do I. Some believe that transmitting signals to space wouldn’t be harmful since travel through the universe is almost impossible.

Others, such as Stephen Hawking, warn that an alien visit could be dangerous, much in the same way as when Christopher Columbus came to America: Native Americans were almost wiped out.

This idea that other beings exist outside ourselves both excites and concerns me. I truly believe that when I look up into the night sky, somewhere, there are other beings looking back at me and wondering if I exist. Don’t be naïve to think these civilizations are not attempting to contact others as well. Perhaps they already know the answers we still seek. On the other hand, could they be seeking life forms to harvest?

One day we will receive an answer. Let’s just hope it derives from a peaceful civilization.