It's another pitch-black Alentejo night but a new moon lurks just below the horizon. The vast, star-spangled Iberian night sky is utterly cloudless. Nighttime Alentejo is spectacular no matter which way I turn my head, whether it's to behold the heavens or to become mildly mesmerized by the shimmering lights of nearby villages.

On such balmy Alentejo evenings, I often feel reluctant to retire for the night. A magnificent Portuguese night sky defies any need for slumber as I stand and gaze at the constellations. Every one of my sensibilities suggest that somewhere, out there, there surely must be some form of extraterrestrial life.

Like many others, I love a decent space movie. Stephen Spielberg's E.T. was an absolute stroke of genius. It still holds its own as a feast of excellent story-telling even to this day. OK, the movie is the embodiment of 1980's style film-making, but that's not altogether a bad thing because who doesn't love the charm and escapism of great movies like Ghostbusters or Back to the Future?

Spielberg's "E.T. moment" has been reimagined many times since the great man weaved his movie-making aplomb all those years ago. Thought-provoking films such as Independence Day (and its sequel) have thrilled and entertained through the decades.

All the while, real-life astronomers have been busily combing the cosmos with mighty telescopes, wondering if ever there will come a day when they might stop, focus - and gasp! Perhaps, amidst some feeble rays picked up from some distant galaxy, one of those great telescopes will detect a weak but definite signal? Whether we choose to believe this sort of thing or not, we can all agree on one thing at least? However unlikely such a moment might actually be, it would be utterly transformative if (or when) it ever did transpire?

Never say never

One thing recent events (such as Covid-19) have taught us, is to never say never. I wonder how many of us thought that we'd see a return to 'cold war' hostilities between East and West in our post-glasnost world of relative harmony? Last year, who could have realistically believed that we'd see a post-Soviet Russian administration making threatening noises about using nuclear weapons?

Many of us might choose to console ourselves with the notion that the powers-that-be must surely be prepared for an eventuality such as alien contact.

But, are they?

Let's face it, most of us thought that 'the world' could face down a distinctly terrestrial foe like Covid-19. Whilst many good things were done to help save lives and mitigate the worst of the pandemic, some might suggest that (on the whole) we didn't collectively handle it as well as we might have done? Most countries were woefully unprepared, despite knowing that a threat existed. Agendas and politics got in the way of pragmatism. Instead of having a globally coordinated effort to try and contain the virus, humanity descended into a state of chaos. Far from having a collaborative approach, protectionism reigned within a strange climate of thoroughly illogical conspiracy theories and general mumbo-jumbo.

An Impending global cataclysm (in the form of a planet-killing asteroid impact), is brilliantly depicted in the Leonardo DiCaprio movie "Don't Look Up." The story hypothesizes how utterly rudderless the world would probably be if humanity pinned all its hopes on those we consider to be 'the great and the good.' The movie shows how politicians are only good at politicking. Many seemed utterly inadequate when the poop actually hit the fans.

How to react?

Beyond the world of science fiction, the real question is, who would decide how to react should there ever be solid proof that aliens do exist? Many will find this question ridiculous and superfluous. Vast physical distances between Earth and any potentially habitable planets make contact (using known technologies) almost impossible.

However, alien contact is a possibility that's being seriously contemplated by SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). SETI are actually putting together something called a ‘post-detection Hub’ at St Andrews in Scotland. The aim of this Hub is to bring together a bunch of international researchers who will assume the role of 'getting humanity ready'. They will analyze any mysterious signals and work out how we might one day respond.

To date, SETI has focussed on searching for radio signals. Potential dilemmas only arise if (or when) these people actually do find some sort of tangible evidence of alien contact. The dilemma is: no one quite knows what would be done about it because, frankly, there are no strategies or protocols in place.

Since 1992, when astronomers first confirmed that a planet exists beyond our own solar system, more than 5,000 more have been detected. This has fired up even more enthusiasm in the search for extraterrestrial life. With every new world detected, the likelihood that we're alone in this vast universe looks more and more like the stuff of fantasy. Scientists suspect that most of the 300bn stars in our Milky Way Galaxy alone host their own solar systems. The tide of scientific opinion is turning more towards the notion that extraterrestrial life really does exist.

Increasingly powerful telescopes are devoting time and effort to the search for ET. These advanced telescopes have opened up great expanses of the universe for astronomers to study. SETI already has some tentative guidelines on how to react if they ever do detect any interstellar messages. There's consensus that researchers should inform the public as well as the UN Secretary General in such circumstances. However, there's little guidance on what to do next. How should any messages be studied and by whom? Should any messages be made public before being deciphered? Would governments act together as 'a planet?' Should we respond? If so, who decides what messages we send back?

I can imagine that the societal impact would be chaotic if any messages were ever detected. The media frenzy alone would be out of control, creating the potential for disinformation. Responses from the religious hierarchy would be varied and contentious, leading to profound consequences for most religious belief systems.

The post-detection Hub at St Andrews will bring together people with the right mindset to help draw up coherent plans on how to tackle whatever scenarios we might encounter. The other objective is to gain some serious engagement from the UN. Many feel that the UN would be the only organisation with enough influence to coordinate any global response.

As we stand, the science community is divided. The prospect of responding to any messages worried Stephen Hawking. He warned that any first contact with aliens could potentially go the same way as what happened when Native Americans encountered Europeans. Hawkings declared how that encounter “didn’t turn out too well". Others have a more optimistic outlook, believing it would be a shame if advanced civilisations kept themselves to themselves and made no effort to communicate.

Time for bed, I think. The Alentejo night sky does strange things to me. Or is it the wine?


Douglas Hughes is a UK-based writer producing general interest articles ranging from travel pieces to classic motoring. 

Douglas Hughes