Humans spend a lot of time and energy wondering if there’s anybody else out there. But what if we got unequivocal evidence that there was?
In this week’s future, a probe that is extremely similar to the Voyager probes that we sent out in the 1970’s shows up in our solar system. In case you’re not familiar with the Voyager probe, here’s a little background. The Voyager program consists of two different probes, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. They were both launched in 1977, and both are still out there. In 2012, Voyager 1 became the first human-made vessel to leave our solar system and enter interstellar space, and Voyager 2 should join it out in dark space between stars next year.
Both Voyagers have 12-inch phonograph records on board, called the Voyager Golden Record. These records contain a selection of sounds meant to give whoever or whatever might play them a taste for what’s it’s like to be on Earth — things like the sound of running water, animal noises, spoken greetings from 55 different languages, and music from all over the world. Each record also includes a printed message from US president Jimmy Carter and the U.N. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim.
So in this scenario, we find something very similar. A probe made with what seems like the same technology, carrying with it a set of sounds similar but not quite the same as our own planetary noises.
There is actually a protocol for what scientists should do if they detect an alien signal, and the first thing we do in this episode is talk to Eric Korpela from SETI who walks us through that protocol. Most of that protocol involves not believing that the signal is real.
So far, nobody has ever detected a signal that stood up to rigorous testing, although in the 1960s some people thought that pulsars might be alien signals. And in this case, with a probe that is so similar to Voyager, Korpela says that most people would probably think it was a hoax. An elaborate, expensive, pretty impressive hoax.
But if, after all the testing and waiting and confirming happens, they’re confident that indeed they’ve found an alien probe. What next? How would people react to the news? To help answer that question I talked to Mary Doria Russell, the author of the famous first-contact novels The Sparrow and Children of God. In The Sparrow, the SETI program picks up a signal from an alien race near Alpha Centauri, and sends an expedition to investigate.
Both Russell and Korpela said the first thing they’d want to know about the probe is where it came from and how long ago it was launched. Has it been in flight for 100,000 years, making its creators “right next door.” Or was it launched more like a billion years ago?
Either way, there’s no real way we could go to them on any reasonable time scale. They’d be so far away, and perhaps no longer even there if they sent this out billions of years ago. But even if we couldn’t go to the planet that sent the probe, we would certainly look at it.
But what would we be looking for? What would we want to know about the beings that created and launched a probe so very similar to our own? Since the probe would have taken hundreds of thousands, or even billions of years to reach us, Korpela says he’d want to know how our doppelgänger world turned out. Were they also destroying their environment? Did technology bring them down? Did the machines take over? Or did they destroy one another?
It’s hard to say what might happen if we found this Voyager double, but there are two predictions I feel confident making. The first, is that this would result in a whole lot more funding for research. And the second is that preppers would have a field day.
All this and more on this week’s podcast! Have a listen.
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Illustration by Tara Jacoby