Fifteen years ago next month, the crew of a U.S. Navy jet fighter made first contact with what some believe was extraterrestrial life.
What they actually made contact with, most likely, was some kind of drone.
Still, first contact is increasing likely, scientists told The Daily Beast. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe a decade from now. Maybe much, much farther in the future. For human civilization, that encounter could change everything.
Then again, it probably won’t.
Serious-minded scientists have for decades carefully scrutinized outer space, searching for signals, artifacts, biological markers, or other evidence that life exists beyond Earth.
Some look for microbial life—proof that evolution is underway on other planets and could produce, or already has produced, intelligent life. Others listen for signals from advanced civilizations.
Their search is motivated in part by simple mathematics. Our galaxy alone includes no fewer than four billion planets that are similar to Earth. To believe that something we can classify as “life” could only evolve on our planet is hubris, they explained.
It could be just a matter of time before a telescope, radio dish or space probe —or, far less likely, a warplane—comes across alien beings.
To be clear, Cmdr. David Fravor and Lt. Cmdr. Jim Slaight weren’t looking for little green men that day back in 2004. They were in the cockpit of their F/A-18F fighter flying a routine training mission 100 miles off the Southern California coast.
A radar operator on a nearby Navy warship radioed Fravor and Slaight, directing them to investigate a mysterious object that had appeared on the ship’s screens.
Sensors showed the unidentified flying object speeding down toward the ocean from a lofty altitude of 80,000 feet, briefly hovering at 20,000 feet then descending to wavetop height. As Fravor and Slaight closed within visual range of the UFO, they were startled by what they saw.
It appeared to be an aircraft of some sort. Oval in shape. Around 40 feet long. It hovered over the water, churning up waves and foam. Fravor steered the F/A-18 directly at the object. Abruptly the UFO sped away, Fravor told The New York Times. “It accelerated like nothing I’ve ever seen.”
He was, he said, “pretty weirded out.” “I have no idea what I saw. It had no plumes, wings or rotors and outran our F-18s.”
Navy pilots on at least two other occasions in recent years had similar run-ins with UFOs. Cockpit videos of the encounters have racked up millions of views on social media. Amid a surge of interest in possible alien visitors, news broke that a trio of powerful U.S. senators for years channeled tens of millions of dollars into a military-run office that investigated UFO sightings.
The Navy has declined to speculate on what exactly the objects might be. Many experts think they’re random electronic flare-ups on sensor screens or merely someone’s fancy drones.
The military certainly isn’t insinuating they’re alien spacecraft. To avoid taking a firm stance on the subject of flying saucers, the Navy prefers to use the term “Unidentified Aerial Phenomena,” or “UAP,” to describe what everyone else calls “UFOs.”
The scientists The Daily Beast spoke to didn’t get particularly excited at the mention of the Navy’s mysterious flying objects. In their minds, little green men probably aren’t crossing vast galactic distance just to pull loop-de-loops over San Diego and taunt Navy fighter pilots.
“I would think we are not particularly interesting for any other civilization to visit,” Avi Loeb, a Harvard physicist, told The Daily Beast. “The reason is that we’re not that intelligent. Open the newspaper every day and you realize how unintelligent we are.”
“It’s much more likely for us to find traces of other civilizations at a distance, remotely,” Loeb added. “We would see signatures of them in space, either because they send a signal that we detect or we see evidence of technological equipment that passes us by or we see the surface of a planet being modified in a way that implies an intelligent, technological civilization.”
The California-based SETI Institute—SETI stands for “search for extraterrestrial intelligence”—is betting we’ll find aliens by intercepting one of their radio broadcasts or laser-based communication signals.
In the 120 years since wireless-pioneer Nikola Tesla first overheard what he thought might be an alien radio transmission, scientists haven’t yet catalogued a signal that is indisputably evidence of extraterrestrial life. Tesla’s signal turned out to be nothing.
But they’re not done looking. Not nearly. The SETI Institute with its huge radio telescope arrays is in the process of surveying one million stars, listening closely for alien broadcasts. “I would put my bets on SETI,” Douglas Vakoch, who heads the METI International research organization in San Francisco, told The Daily Beast. METI stands for “Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence.”
New methods of space exploration could soon surpass SETI as humanity’s best tool for finding alien life. Using probes and robotic rovers, NASA and other space agencies are just beginning to look underground on Mars and the moon for evidence of microbial life.
If there are microbes, then there’s evolution taking place. And we know from our own experience that evolution can lead to intelligent life, whatever that means. Find a few microbes on a few other planets, and the possibilities begin to branch almost endlessly.
“There’s essentially no place in the universe we can rule out life existing,” Martin Dominik, an astronomer at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, told The Daily Beast. “There’s so extremely little we can rule out.”
Our search for microbial life is about to accelerate, big time. In 2021, NASA plans to switch on its new James Webb space telescope. “One of the main uses of the James Webb space telescope will be to study the atmospheres of exoplanets, to search for the building blocks of life elsewhere in the universe,” NASA stated.
Meanwhile the European Space Agency is eyeing a 2028 launch date for its Atmospheric Remote-Sensing Infrared Exoplanet Large-Survey telescope, which will scan distant planets. Together, NASA’s James Webb and the ESA’s ARIEL amount to a space-scouting effort that exceeds SETI’s own potential, Vakoch said.
If we make first contact before 2028, it’ll probably be via radio, Vakoch explained. After 2028, we’re more likely to detect life in the atmosphere of its own home planet.
At a talk in Germany in 2012, SETI Institute astronomer Seth Shostak bet everyone in the room a Starbucks coffee that the human race would make first contact within 24 years.
Seven years later, Shostak stands by his bet. That first encounter with aliens could lead to many other encounters. “The universe, we could conclude, is teeming with life,” Shostak told The Daily Beast.
Then everything changes, right?
“The reaction will depend on people’s expectations,” Vakoch said. And today millions of people already believe there’s life beyond Earth, he added. They’re just waiting for confirmation.
Still, first contact hopefully would nudge us toward greater humility as a species and a civilization, Shostak said. “We would know something important, and that might alter our perspectives on just how important we, and Earth’s biota, really are.”
In short, not very.
“Earth is not the center of the universe,” Dominik said. “The Sun is not the center of the universe.” There’s life on our own, insignificant, blue and green planet. Why wouldn’t there be life somewhere else?
“Why,” Dominik asked, “should we be the only ones?”