My Times column on how earthlings communicate
with life in space:
The Hubble telescope has revealed that Europa, a
moon of Jupiter, has fountains of water vapour near one of its
poles, which means its ocean might not always be hermetically
sealed by miles-thick ice, as previously assumed.
Europa’s huge ocean, being probably liquid beneath the ice, has
long been the place in space thought most favourable to life, so
the prospect of sampling this Jovian pond for bugs comes a little
closer. My concern is a touch more mundane. Who’s in charge of
the response down here when we do find life in space?
Even if we only find a blob of protoplasmic ooze, the arguments
could get wild. Who is allowed to study it? Who sets the rules
about not polluting or harming it? And if instead we receive a
radio signal from intelligent life — and such a broadcast might
arrive any day — imagine the chaos. President Obama will make a
soaring but content-free speech, while his generals will act as if
the matter is entirely for them; Ban Ki Moon will set up a
committee with gold-plated expense accounts; Vladimir Putin will
send a reply unilaterally; the Chinese (who released a rover on the
Moon this weekend) will hack the aliens’ computers; Lady Ashton of
the European Union will issue directives.
And that’s just the governments. Before the news is cold, Green
lobbyists will have demanded — and been granted — observer status
at any meetings being held to decide what happens, will have
persuaded European commissioners to divert funds their way to lobby
them on the matter (this circular feedback is known as
sock puppetry) and will have announced they are to sue
governments for not taking the life forms’ interests into
sufficient account when launching communication satellites.
Meanwhile, a shady group of the Green Great and Good — those
rich people who like telling others to live more frugally — will
meet in a luxury resort to draw up ethical guidelines for the rest
of the world to follow when dealing with extraterrestrials. The
guidelines will surprisingly include the suggestion of
well-salaried jobs for themselves.
The International Academy of Astronautics drew up a protocol in 1996 for
deciding whether and how to reply to a radio signal from aliens.
It’s fairly vague, but it does suggest that “the United Nations
General Assembly should consider making the decision on whether or
not to send a message to extraterrestrial intelligence, and on what
the content of that message should be, based on recommendations
from the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space of the
United Nations and within other governmental and non-governmental
Somehow that prospect horrifies me. Who would be on the
committee set up by the UN to write the reply? The Pope probably; a
chap from the Pentagon perhaps; an ex-Norwegian prime minister
almost certainly; the head of the World Wildlife Fund; and of
course Bono. The mind boggles.
In the movies it’s all so much simpler. Scientist (Jeff Goldblum
or Sigourney Weaver) goes and tells president (Tommy Lee Jones or
Morgan Freeman) he’s made contact, then hero (Will Smith or Bruce
Willis) does the necessary violence. There’s neither need nor time
for summits, protocols, plebiscites and arguments over money. In
real life, things would very quickly get a lot more bureaucratic, a
lot more bad-tempered and a lot less exciting.
Within days of first contact with alien life, the news coverage
would become deadly dull and all too earthly. You can almost write
the BBC News report now: “The Prime Minister today defended his
decision to fund the UK’s 2 per cent stake in the mission to
communicate with extraterrestrial life forms by cutting language
courses for Bulgarian immigrants. Protests at the awarding of the
contract to a private security firm are planned for later today.”
That sort of thing.
Another alarming thought: the place is called Europa. What
adjective are we to use for the creatures: Europans? Spellchecker
nightmare. Then imagine the preening that will go on in Brussels,
and the gnashing of teeth at Tory headquarters. Is it not just our
bad luck that the most promising body in the entire solar system
for alien life should turn out to have the same name as that bane
of our existence, that byword for boringness, Europe?
I mean, why could a frozen ocean not have turned up on Callisto,
Io or Ganymede? Or Hegemone, Sinope, Callirrhoe or Eukelade?
(Jupiter’s big moons are named after Zeus’s conquests, small ones
mostly after his offspring and would-be conquests.) Actually,
there’s a glimmer of hope: in 2005 the spacecraft Cassini found
good evidence of water plumes near the south pole of Enceladus, a
small but hospitable-looking moon of Saturn that also seems to have
a frozen ocean. Do let’s check that one out first.
Last year I was lucky enough to meet the man who is putting
together for Nasa some of the technology for exploring the ocean on
Europa. A ridiculously capable Texan named Bill Stone, he dives in
very deep caves in Mexico, travelling underground for weeks on end;
he also designs highly sophisticated autonomous
robots, and he thinks deeply about space exploration. One of
his probes has successfully solved a key problem already. Unleashed
beneath the four-metres-thick ice of an Antarctic lake, it went off
exploring on its own, then came back, homing precisely on the hole
in the ice where its journey started.
That combination of autonomy and homing skill will be necessary
on Europa, where radio messages from Earth would take half an hour
to arrive and would probably never penetrate the ice. Now it’s just
a matter of getting Bill Stone’s probe on to the surface of Europa,
and working out how it will melt its way down through miles of ice
and back again.
All very simple really, at least compared with solving the
politics of deciding what to do about alien life forms.