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What if?
posted by Steve Edberg
August 05, 2013
What if?
This photo of a "face" on the surface of Mars turned out to be nothing but a trick of light, but a real extraterrestrial discovery could have massive implications for society.

Marilyn A., Leonard, and Jose ask an interesting question: What happens if NASA does find life elsewhere in the universe? 

Let’s assume the evidence for exobiology is accepted by the science community and the discovery is published by a scientific journal. There will undoubtedly be press releases issued to the media announcing the discovery, as well. I’m sure that for a week or two the discovery and its implications will be presented and discussed in newspapers, magazines, radio, television, and all the digital media. Most people will be having discussions with friends and colleagues.

Over the longer term, biologists, religious leaders, and philosophers will be re-examining their understanding and beliefs and will consider the implications of the discovery. Then they will share their thinking with the rest of us. 

If the discovery is of microbes or plants, I think it will be absorbed as a neat new fact into the common knowledge of people around the world. People will wonder if there is animal or intelligent life there. If the discovery is of animals or intelligent beings, I think there will be much more interest, discussion, uncertainty, and even fear generated by the news.

If the discovered exobiology is distant (outside the Solar System), there will be excitement and people will be thinking about what, if any, action we can or should take because of the discovery. Certainly there will be more detailed follow-up studies and the search might be widened to other exoplanet systems using the techniques proven successful in the search that found life.

There wouldn’t be much debate if only microbes and/or vegetation are found, but an intelligent extraterrestrial civilization would receive much more consideration. Do we lay low or attempt to make contact? Are they friendly or threatening? How can we tell? Are they more advanced than us?

If the exobiology is found inside the Solar System, there will be much more fevered discussions of what we can and should do about it. I expect that the current framework of international organizations would host various discussions on the subject. I imagine governmental bodies including foreign ministries, defense ministries, and science and environmental agencies will be involved in discussions about how to react. Non-governmental science and environmental organizations and the leaders of religions will probably be involved as well. Do we completely quarantine the celestial body (or Earth)? Can we?

A protocol for dealing with the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence has been prepared by the International Academy of Astronautics. It does not, however, deal with the discovery of simpler astrobiology. You can find the protocol here: http://www.setileague.org/iaaseti/protdet.htm.