If we find extraterrestrial life, how should it be communicated to the world? NASA proposes this…

Imagine that you are the first scientist to discover aliens. Maybe it’s a clear message picked up by a radio telescope or life swimming through the ocean beneath Europa’s icy crust, or maybe it’s signs of wriggling microbes in hard Martian lakes or microscopic fossils in a meteorite.

But how do you go about telling the rest of the world about such a momentous discovery? And what happens if you’re wrong?

NASA scientists have just published a commentary article in Nature calling for a framework for reporting extraterrestrial life to the world.

“Our generation could realistically be the one to discover evidence of life beyond Earth,” write NASA Chief Scientist James Green and his colleagues. “With this privileged potential comes responsibility.

“As life detection targets become increasingly prominent in space science, it is essential to open a community dialogue on how to convey information on a topic that is diverse, complicated, and has high potential for sensationalism.”

The team explains that finding extraterrestrial life is often thought of as “an all-or-nothing proposition: either a mission returns definitive evidence of life or it has missed its target.”

But more than likely the evidence won’t come in the definitive form of little green men landing on Earth. In fact, it’s likely to be subtle or even completely unknown to us, or perhaps only revealed in long stages as scientists make a series of follow-up observations.

Green and his colleagues argue that this should be made clear: that we should reframe such a discovery, so that it is not presented as a one-off moment when aliens announce themselves to the world. Instead, it should be seen as a progressive effort, reflecting the process of science itself.

If instead we recast the search for life as a progressive endeavor, convey the value of observations that are contextual or suggestive but not definitive, and emphasize that false starts and dead ends are an expected part of a healthy scientific process. ”, they said. he writes.

This will involve scientists, technologists, and the media talking to each other to agree, first, on objective standards of evidence for life, and, second, on how best to communicate that evidence. This, they say, should preferably be done now before life is detected, rather than scrambling to rebuild it later.

The team kicks off the conversation by proposing a “confidence of life detection” (CoLD) scale, which contains seven steps that take us from the first exciting potential detection of life to definitive confirmation.

“The lower levels of this scale [1 and 2] focus on the initial identification of potential biosignatures, for example, chemical, physical structures, or activity consistent with biological origin,” Green and colleagues explain.

Steps 3 and 4 focus on finding out if the environment around the biosignatures is really habitable, if a biological explanation is the best and only one, or if there are other sources of contamination.

“Higher levels of the scale involve corroboration of the initial result by independent lines of evidence and rejection of alternative hypotheses developed by the community specifically in response to the initial result.”

Importantly, being familiar with this scale would mean that everyone involved, from scientists to the media and the public, would be aware that any individual result could be overturned at any stage.

The last step would be the most difficult, especially when considering the potential finds from the current missions. NASA’s Perseverance Rover, for example, is currently circling Jezero Crater on Mars in search of signs of ancient life. The rover is equipped with all kinds of instruments that would allow it to detect life up to level 5, but analysis of samples returned to Earth would be needed to reach level 6, and reaching level 7 could involve follow-up investigations elsewhere in Mars.

But a scale like CoLD, the authors emphasize, is just a proof of concept, meant to open up dialogue.

This is an increasingly important conversation, because experts believe the odds are high that aliens exist.

“Whatever the outcome of the dialogue, what matters is that it happens,” they write. “By doing so, we can only be more effective in communicating the results of our work and the wonder associated with it.”

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