What should we do if aliens contact us? Nasa scientists answer

  • HT Correspondent, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Oct 23, 2015 14:19 IST
Twelve Nasa scientists answer questions about what they are doing to help find habitable planets outside our solar system. (Shutterstock)

Have you ever thought what you are going to do if you ever get to meet aliens? Apart from freezing in disbelief and uttering unintelligible sentences, that is.

Twelve Nasa scientists working on various projects, including the search for alien life in the universe, came together for a Reddit Ask Me Anything and answered questions about what they are doing to help find habitable planets outside our solar system.

Here are some of the interesting questions and equally intriguing answers from the AMA.

Q: If intelligent life is found in the universe and they want to contact/meet us, what will Nasa do?

A: One thing to clear up - the VAST majority of the work we do on the search for life beyond Earth doesn’t look for intelligent life specifically. Some of the methods we plan to use could find signs of intelligent life, but they’re really designed to detect the global biospheres that (mostly) are driven by microbes.

But to not dodge your question... if we got word of that, this would answer the question that drives a lot of our work! But, as we’re scientists and engineers... it would likely kick off more questions. We’d want to know what their planet is like - its climate and chemical composition, etc. (And we’d probably want to learn the things they know, too).

Q: What do you think the cultural ramifications would be if even microscopic life was found on another planet?

A: This is one of the most intriguing questions out there right now, and would have a profound impact on the way we view ourselves. Our goal is to turn this from something people speculate about into something we can analyze with data and observations. And that moment could be within our grasp over the next generation.

Q: If likely (to whatever degree of certainty you’re going for) habitable planets are discovered, what happens then? how would we proceed from there, how would we apply that knowledge?

A: We’ve found potentially habitable planets already! Unfortunately, most of these are too far away for follow-up observations. However, their presence - and their rate of occurrence - suggests that potentially habitable planets that are closer to us also exist. And we’re working on the science and technology and missions to confirm their habitability, and to find out if they have signs of life.

Q: A recent article stated that only about 8% of habitable planets have even been formed yet. Do you guys have any opinions on this, and if it may have something to do with the Fermi paradox?

A: This is a theoretical result that really just points out that we are still relatively early in the lifetime of our universe. In the epoch right after the Big Bang, the universe was made up almost entirely of hydrogen and helium--nothing much to build planets out of. As each generation of stars form, evolve, and and die, they produce heavy elements (carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and beyond) and scatter those elements into space, providing the building blocks to form planets. The longer we go on, the more heavy elements are available, and the more planets (including potentially habitable planets) will form. So until the time far, far in the future when the universe runs out of fuel to form new stars, more and more planets will continue to form. The result you noted is simply an acknowledgment that the universe has only just begun to form all the planets that will eventually be produced.

Q: This is gonna sound stark, but what is the point of detecting habitable exoplanets if we cannot go there?

A: We don’t think we need absolute certainty to fly the mission. If we find some signs of life, there will be follow-up observations. We are sure SETI teams would start listening and looking at that planet/star, and we might be able to eventually fly missions to get things like maps of those worlds (but those would be VERY far off).

Q: What’s the biggest obstacle that you face as you look for habitable planets?

A: That’s actually a really hard question to answer, because there are a number of problems! Probably the biggest problem, though, is the fact that the (faint) planet is right next to a (bright) star. For an earth-like planet around a sun-like star, the star is 10,000,000,000 brighter than the planet! That forces us to find new ways to very, very effectively block out the light from the star so that we can see the planet.

Q:What’s the story on this “alien structure” obstructing light from a star? I’ve seen a few articles lately.

A: SH - KIC 8462852 was recently reported in a paper submitted to the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society; Nasa did not release any news on this. In that paper, the authors examined a number of possible sources for the unusual observed behavior of the star. Those authors found a plausible, naturally occurring phenomenon that could account for the observations. In the abstract, the authors state: “... considering the observational constraints on dust clumps orbiting a normal main-sequence star, we conclude that the scenario most consistent with the data in hand is the passage of a family of exocomet fragments, all of which are associated with a single previous breakup event.”

There was another star, KIC 4110611 that too had an odd light curve, but after a few years of working to find out why, it turned out to be a five star system. It was unique, but not alien structures. We’re looking forward to more research on this enigmatic star to determine the cause of its interesting behavior.

Some not so serious questions which the scientists sportingly answered.

Q: Why can’t my WiFi reach my room and yours can reach mars?

A: Have you tried unplugging it then plugging it back in about 20 seconds later? (Seriously) Because we have bigger antennae.. much bigger like the Deep Space Network! (http://deepspace.jpl.nasa.gov/)

Q: Do y’all have a plan if the aliens aren’t chill?

A: Never split up and don’t turn around.

Q: Favorite space movies?

A: No favorite, but top ones include “Apollo 13,” “Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan,” “Wall-E,” and “The Martian.” Stargate, and of course Serenity. Contact (based on the book by Carl Sagan), Serenity, Independence Day.

Q: Can we start giving these planets cooler sounding names than KOI-1573?

As we’ve discovered from the @NASAKepler mission, exoplanets are abundant in the galaxy. To help organize and index the scientific literature by the source of discovery, the International Astronomical Union has a standard for naming exoplanets. This consists of two parts- the first part relates to the source which can be named for the host star name, or the astronomical catalog name, or the mission name. The second part of the name is a lowercase letter where b indicates the first exoplanet discovered around that particular star, c would be the second, and so on. To see the variety of sources (or host name) see the NASA Exoplanet Archive: http://exoplanetarchive.ipac.caltech.edu/cgi-bin/TblView/nph-tblView?app=ExoTbls&config=planets

Periodically the IAU will hold a naming contest for the public to vote for a “friendly name” for specific exoplanets. In fact, there’s a context going now. Voting closes on Oct. 31, 2015 http://nameexoworlds.iau.org/exoworldsvote

Q: Have any of you read The Martian?

A: We read it and loved it! And we loved that the spirit of the science and technology remained in the movie. Here’s an article about real Nasa technologies touched on in the movie. -WC http://www.nasa.gov/feature/nine-real-nasa-technologies-in-the-martian

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