For 25 years, Dr John Elliott has been quietly preparing for an encounter with aliens. Since he started his work in the 90s, improvements in telescope technology have led to the discovery of more than 5,000 planets outside our solar system. The Milky Way, Earth’s host galaxy, has 300 billion stars, and scientists suspect that each one has at least one orbiting planet. Then, of course, there are the other galaxies. Some 200 billion of them.
Now, scientists are increasingly sure of one probability: aliens are out there, and in a couple of decades – if not tomorrow – we may make contact with them. It has taken longer than Elliott would have liked, but slowly the world is starting to listen.
Elliott is the coordinator for the Seti Post Detection Hub at St Andrews University, a research centre that was set up last year as a branch of the Seti Institute (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), an international organisation founded in 1984. For decades, Elliott has been giving academic talks up and down the country. “It was gradually dawning on me in the early 2000s that discussions around detecting alien life needed to be done in a much more cohesive, meaningful way, rather than just little bits and pieces of unconnected research,” says Elliott.
Seti has branches around the world and employs 100 scientists, but the Post-Detection Hub is the only one of its kind; working with anthropologists, mathematicians, language philosophers, astrophysicists and space-law academics to formulate a plan for how humanity should handle an earth-shattering truth: we are not alone.
This might seem scary, but Elliott isn’t worried. “It’s probably going to be the most profound moment in human history, to realise that we’re not the centre of the universe any more,” he says. “There’s life out there and if we found it once, it is probably all over the place.”
In July, the US Congress hosted its first serious hearing on UFOs, in which US Airforce pilots and military “whistleblowers” came forward to share their experience of extra-terrestrial sightings. David Grusch, a former member of the US Department of Defence agency, told a committee that “non-human” beings had been discovered, although this was discredited by some scientists.
It isn’t UFOs that scare Elliott’s researchers. Their biggest fear is altogether more human. How will humanity understand itself after meeting another intelligent species? What would the discovery of alien life mean for religion and faith? And most importantly, what is our plan?
The global response to coronavirus only confirmed the urgency of these unanswered questions. “The pandemic was a very interesting example of how we can get it wrong,” says Elliott. “It’s an example of what happens when we ignore academics, despite advice that was given years in advance. It’s also an example of what can happen if we don’t have a plan in place that is ready to activate.”
Elliott believes the Hub is 12 months away from having a fully formulated plan. This plan will focus on the three most likely ways humanity might come into contact with alien life. The first, and most likely, Elliott believes, is through a radio signal. The second is the discovery of alien probe debris in our atmosphere. The third involves the discovery of alien microorganisms in our solar system. “We know the laws of physics, as we know them,” says Elliott, by which he means our understanding of space might still be limited. “And so, we base our priorities around that. It’s about being pragmatic.”
Currently, the world does have a protocol for the detection of an alien radio signal, but no other form of contact. If a signal is detected, scientists must first rule out that it isn’t coming from Earth, and then, once confirmed as extra-terrestrial, it can be publicly announced. “That 2010 protocol doesn’t refer to any government or any official body,” says Elliott. “It’s up to those who discovered it to announce it. After that, there is no plan.”
This is where the real problems lie. Is it wise to respond to the signal? Which scientific body should decipher it? How do we co-ordinate responses to a message that might be travelling thousands of light years, and take decades to arrive?
Elliott has already given a talk to the European Commission but much of the work at the Hub is about working towards coordination with the UN. “Analysis of the detection is likely to be only a small part of what we need to do and be prepared,” he says. “Preparing the social aspects will probably be more complicated than dealing with another planet.”
Back on Earth, Scott Anfield is making preparations of his own. Anfield has been a self-identified “prepper” for 15 years. He is part of a community that has prepared themselves and their homes for a possible societal breakdown, in the event of an unexpected disaster. He followed July’s US Congress hearing closely although he doesn’t believe that an alien invasion is particularly likely. He fears a cyber-attack or natural disaster far more than a fantastical invasion. But, he says, it is always good to be prepared.
Anfield, 36, is a copywriter in the day, and in his free time, he runs British Prepper, one of the few UK websites that provide insight into how to prepare for an international, apocalyptic emergency. “An alien invasion is just one of the types of scenarios with a question mark over it,” says Anfield. “Nobody really knows exactly what will happen. We’ve seen so much in popular culture: aliens are good, aliens are bad. There is just so much that can happen. But if there was an invasion, you would have to rely on yourself to survive.”
At his home in Yorkshire, Anfield has eight months of tinned food stored in a large pantry. Every week at the supermarket, he buys more tins to top up his store. In his garden, he has made sure he is self-sustaining, with a vegetable plot full of potatoes. In his garage, he has months’ worth of petrol and a camping kit packed and ready if he needs to flee with his family. “My family follows my lead, but it’s not all about doom and gloom. It can be quite fun,” he says.
There are two scenarios that Anfield is ready for: “bugging in” and “bugging out.” “Bugging in” involves bunking down inside your home. “Bugging out” means going out into nature and finding a place to hide. Anfield has several places already mapped out as potential forest hideaways, all with suitable access to rivers to guarantee water supply. He has already walked the routes to make sure.
The scariest thing for Anfield isn’t the aliens. It’s the breakdown of society that would follow. “With an alien invasion, communication and the internet would probably go down,” he says. “So it’s important to have a radio that picks up signals overseas. Obviously, get some walkie-talkie and things like that. It’s important to be able to communicate with other people.”
If there is societal unrest, you have to be prepared to stay in your house. “You have to be prepared to rely on yourself,” he says. “Being a prepper is about being prepared for anything but not expecting everything to happen.”
As a computer scientist, Elliott doesn’t believe we have anything to fear. “If we come into contact with aliens, it won’t be a crisis,” he says. “There probably won’t be anything imminently dangerous. We are in the suburbs of this galaxy. We are not in the galactic centre. We are talking about vast distances. There’s no logical reason why anything would want to take all that time and effort to try and come out here. If aliens wanted real estate, there are lots of habitable planets that are probably much closer.”
Still, in the years that Elliott has studied the universe, he has learned to keep an open mind. “You can’t discount other scenarios happening at all. You can’t say [aliens coming to Earth] is never going to happen. That would be just as silly as saying they’re walking amongst us right now.”
Elliot might not be sure of exactly what the future entails, or what form alien contact will take, but there is one thing he does know: “It will be a momentous day of discovery.”