The new race to contact E.T.

In an article over at, Leonard David describes a new development in the efforts by humans to contact extraterrestrial life elsewhere in the galaxy. While the SETI program (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) has been in operation for decades, the results thus far have been mostly disappointing. There was a brief flurry of excitement in 1977 when “the WOW signal” was received, but in later years even that one has been called into question. Now, however, there’s a new player in the game. China has constructed the largest single-dish radio telescope in the world and they are reportedly gearing up to hunt for potential alien signals from space. So are we headed toward a 21st-century arms race to see who can get E.T. to phone home first?

Researchers using China’s new Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope (FAST), the largest single-dish scope in the world, are piecing together a technological strategy to carry out a major and sweeping search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI).

What if China someday announces that this hunt has been successful? How would such a claim be verified, and what might the consequences be? And could an unofficial international SETI race already be underway? asked several SETI authorities to flesh out the implications of China being the first nation to get a ping from ET.

According to the experts they spoke with, this one of those rare areas where there really won’t be much in the way of geopolitics messing up the process, so a “new space race” isn’t in the cards. The reason is that the process of acquiring signals at such low levels across such a vast target area requires the cooperation of nations with large radio telescopes around the world. The odds are good that if we do finally hear something interesting, no single country will claim all the “credit” for it as it will likely involve scientists from multiple nations.

The interesting word in their analysis, however, is the word “contact.” Up until now, most of what we’ve done has just involved listening in the hopes of detecting some sort of radio waves from an alien intelligence. But the new FAST dish in China is capable of more than passive detection. They can actually broadcast powerful, targeted signals out into space that might eventually be detected by another civilization.

So is that really a good idea? Scientists from Carl Sagan to Stephen Hawking have warned us against such a move over the years. Sure, everyone wants to be the first to discover another intelligent species, but what if these signals attract undesirable attention from a potentially hostile race? If they’ve got the technology to make it all the way to Earth, they’ve probably got weapons we haven’t even imagined yet.

Of course, the odds of any signals sent from China today reaching another civilization and getting an answer in our lifetimes are pretty slim. Even a signal sent to the closest star to ours would take more than four years to arrive and another for years for the reply to reach us. And most of the really interesting exoplanets discovered during the Kepler mission were much further away than that.

But all of this leaves what should by now, be an obvious question dangling in front of us. What if we don’t need to hook up a phone call with someone that’s light-years away from us to contact E.T.? What if they’re already within cell tower distance? Let’s face it… somebody had to build those Tic Tacs that our Navy has been chasing around. And somebody might even be flying them. I’d be a lot more interested in seeing them dial-up someone’s smartphone and let us know what’s going on. (Hey… aliens. I’ll give you my digits. I’m available.)

But at least so far, whoever or whatever is directing the movements of those things doesn’t seem interested in talking to us. Unless, of course, they’re already talking to our government and we’re being left in the dark about it. But that’s a conspiracy theory for another column.