Congress’s UFO hearing shows the challenge of announcing the discovery of alien life. NASA’s approach to breaking the news.

Congress's UFO hearing shows the challenge of announcing the discovery of alien life. NASA's approach to breaking the news.


The Challenge of Announcing Extraterrestrial Life: What NASA Faces

NASA is not announcing the existence of extraterrestrial life. However, if there is anything the recent UFO frenzy has taught us, it is that preparing the world for such news might be a daunting task.

The speculation about aliens on Earth began after ex-intelligence officer David Grusch testified to Congress about UFOs on July 26. He claimed that the US had recovered “non-human” “biologics” from a crashed vehicle. Though unconfirmed, this revelation added fuel to the fire of UFO mania that had gripped the nation following the incident with the “Chinese spy balloon.”

China’s government initially claimed the balloon was a weather balloon that had strayed off course. However, the US military shot it down off the coast of South Carolina, stating that it was part of China’s global surveillance network. This event, along with three more mysterious objects sighted over Alaska, Canada, and Lake Huron, further fed the frenzy surrounding UFOs or what the Department of Defense now refers to as “unidentified anomalous phenomena” (UAPs). While there is no evidence suggesting these UAPs are alien technology, the speculation continues to abound.

People’s fascination with the idea of extraterrestrial life is evident in the surge of Google searches for “extraterrestrial life” and “are aliens real.” Online posts mentioning extraterrestrials have also increased significantly. Even Elon Musk couldn’t resist joining in on the alien discourse, contributing a playful alien joke to the mix.

Amidst all the excitement, the White House press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, emphasized that there was no indication of aliens or extraterrestrial activity. However, it is crucial to acknowledge that the rumors circulating today represent just a glimpse into the challenge that lies ahead if NASA were to discover actual evidence of life beyond Earth.

Lori Glaze, the head of NASA’s planetary science division, recognizes the monumental significance of such a discovery and the subsequent responsibility of announcing it appropriately to the public. Glaze acknowledges that the biggest challenge would be managing the delicate balance between excitement and setting realistic expectations. After all, scientific discoveries require a rigorous process of verification and validation.

To address this challenge, NASA has developed a procedure for assessing and sharing potential discoveries of extraterrestrial life. The framework, known as the “confidence of life detection” (CoLD) scale, rates the scientific confidence of any evidence on a scale of one to seven. As evidence builds, the confidence level can increase, leading to potential public announcements at each new level.

For example, a level one detection may involve the discovery of a molecule that could be related to life within samples collected by the Mars Perseverance rover. As scientists confirm the absence of contamination in the samples or instruments, the evidence can progress to level two. Subsequent measurements and independent confirmation by other scientific teams can lead to further increases in confidence.

It is important to note that the discovery of extraterrestrial life is unlikely to be a sudden “eureka” moment. Rather, it will be a gradual accumulation of evidence. Mary Voytek, head of NASA’s Astrobiology Program, emphasizes the need for a better approach to sharing such discoveries and building excitement while demonstrating how each finding contributes to our understanding of the universe.

In the event that evidence of extraterrestrial life is discovered, the announcement would not be limited to NASA holding press conferences alone. Glaze suggests that it would be an “administration-level” affair, involving the US presidency. Moreover, there is a possibility that another nation’s space agency could make the discovery before NASA.

Additionally, the discovery of intelligent alien life would present its own challenges. How do we communicate with them? What should we say? How might they respond? Even efforts to send signals into space have sparked controversy. Critics, including Stephen Hawking, have warned of potential risks associated with contacting extraterrestrial intelligence.

Undoubtedly, the announcement of extraterrestrial life would disrupt public discourse and lead to chaos. Glaze reiterates that NASA’s goal is to be a trusted and transparent source of clear scientific information. However, conveying such groundbreaking news will undoubtedly be the agency’s most significant challenge to date.

Glaze aptly summarizes the far-reaching implications that the confirmation of extraterrestrial life would entail: “The confirmation that we’re not alone in the universe is, I think, going to be akin to realizing that the universe doesn’t rotate around Earth. It’s a very different way of thinking about who we are, where we came from.”

This article was originally published on February 18, 2023, and has been updated to include recent events.

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