Scientists who have set up a base to search the night skies for signs of intelligent life have revealed they have strict instructions on what to do if they are successful -- phone home.
An elaborate protocol document developed during early NASA exercises in the United States for dealing with aliens has been handed to the CSIRO scientists and their American counterparts based at Parkes in central New South Wales.
It says the first person to be told that we are not alone should be the leader of the nation in which the discovery is made -- in this case, Prime Minister Paul Keating.
The scientists must then telephone the U.S. president before telling the United Nations.
As soon as these tasks have been completed, the scientists are allowed to tell the media.
"There would certainly be no secrecy if we did find something," said Dr. Seth Shostak, one of the American scientists from the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence [SETI] Institute.
American billionaires are funding the search, which gets fully underway early next month in the first leg of a $9 million worldwide exercise dubbed "Operation Phoenix."
Over five months, the Australian team will train the country's largest telescope based in Parkes, on systems around 200 stars thought to be similar enough to our sun to sustain life.
This will gather microwave signals which will be sorted out by a radiowave receiver tuned to 56 million frequencies.
All signals gathered will be tested and double-checked to ensure they don't come from terrestrial sources, such as mobile phones or army radar systems.
It is the largest such search in history, with equipment so powerful it is expected to gather as much information from three minutes raking the skies as all the projects in the past 30 years.
"The general public seems fond of thinking that there is something of strategic importance in a situation like this which would mean it was kept secret, but that's not the case," Dr. Shostak said yesterday. "And if it caused panic, well, that's just the way it is."
The scientist said sociologists had undertaken studies to test how the general public would react to the news of intelligent life forms existing in outer space.
"It turns out that panic would be unlikely," said Dr. Shostak. "They looked at life-changing precedents in the past, and it turns out that when Copernicus said the earth travelled around the sun instead of it being the other way around, people didn't panic, and ditto when Darwin said we developed from simians."
However, Dr. Shostak conceded that there would undoubtedly be spirited debate over whether to aim a radiowave reply to the aliens.
Original file name: .CNI - Rules for ET Hunting
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