NASA scientists have called on the world to agree on a productive way to announce the potential discovery of alien life on another planet.
Various representatives of the space agency – including its chief scientist, James Green – have noted that interest in such an announcement is likely to be very high.
Additionally, there is a real possibility that life beyond Earth could be discovered fairly quickly, they note.
But any ad can be misunderstood, with any result seen as meaning more than it could actually indicate. Such results are probably not a definitive confirmation that alien life does or does not exist, but rather a slow process that could unfold over time.
In this context, it is important that scientists have a carefully thought out and clear way of announcing any evidence that may be found. Without it, the public could lose faith in the scientific process if they are tricked into believing that alien life was discovered only to be told later that the reports were “ambiguous or inaccurate.”
“Our generation could realistically be the one to discover evidence of life beyond Earth. With this privileged potential comes responsibility ”, the authors of a new article, published in the journal Nature, write.
“The breadth of the question of whether we are alone in the Universe, and the public interest in it, opens the possibility that the results may be considered to imply more than what the observations support, or that observers don’t hear it. “
To ensure that this does not happen, the world should agree on “objective standards” for what would be considered evidence of life elsewhere in the universe, as well as “best practices” for how this evidence is communicated.
They suggest this could include a ladder to explain any possible evidence, which would start with detecting intriguing signals of biological activity at the bottom and work its way through detailed observations and confirmation at the top.
This would allow any possible evidence to be clearly communicated, but without the need for an overly simplistic ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to the question of whether life has been found.
A similar system has already been developed for reporting potential impacts from dangerous asteroids, which scientists say is generating an equally high level of interest and the danger of being sensational. As with the potential scale of extraterrestrial life, NASA has yet to use the upper parts of the scale for asteroids, as impacts from near-Earth objects are very rare.
Scientists also note that the scale is only given as an example and could be changed in future discussions. The scale could be made more nuanced to account for the different types of life that might be found and the environments in which it might be discovered, for example.
The article, “Call for a Framework for Communicating Evidence of Life Beyond Earth,” is published in Nature today.