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Old 8th September 2011, 06:26 PM   #1 (permalink)
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How would you manage a first contact?

I was a little wary about starting this thread as I do NOT want it to degenerate into an "aliens grabbed my mother" conspiracy discussion.

I am interested in how aliens who have discovered our presence could manage first contact with us as friends without causing mass panic. I am interested in this as background to story ideas but am posting it here as I think it is a more generally interesting question.

I would like to assume that the aliens' science is not so far different to ours. IE they have not discovered any radical new science concepts that allow them FTL travel, or even FTL communications. They cannot "beam" themselves to the surface of the planet or even project some kind of holograms to the surface etc. Their application of that science can and probably would be far in advance of us but no great pure science surprises.

It seems to me that there are a number of problems:

1. It is unlikely that any sizeable starship (and without FTL it would have to be sizeable) could approach Earth without being spotted by amateur astronomers as well as professionals (at least once in Earth orbit). If nothing else their decelerating drive is likely to be visible. So maybe they would stand off a long way and send in a smaller, harder to spot ship.

2. If they just broadcast a general radio message for all to hear, I am convinced the result would be mass panic across the globe, financial markets going into melt down, cults and religions going bonkers. There would be, I am certain, a lot of deaths associated with such an announcement.

3. If they wanted to contact only world leaders, then which would they contact first without putting the others’ noses out of joint? Maybe the answer would be to contact the head of the UN. Either way, just how exactly would you make that contact without ending up back in scenario 2? You can’t just get on the phone to the president of the USA/Russia/China etc. or the secretary-general of the UN or walk up to their doors and knock. However if you turned up yourself (not looking particularly human) in order to verify your story then you would get no further than the man on the gate before the security team went into overdrive. That is assuming you could get that close without drawing attention to yourself first.

4. If we can solve problem 3 we have still only delayed problem 2. A global announcement by the Secretary-General, President etc. would generate only marginally less panic than the announcement being made by the aliens themselves.

I really can’t think of any way that contact could be made without generating panic. Ironically it would probably have been easier several thousand years ago when the aliens could have just appeared as “Gods” and then proceeded to “educate us”. Again please let me stress I am not saying that has already happened and don’t want to discuss whether it has happened. I want to consider how an alien arriving today could announce their presence without causing a breakdown in Earth’s society. Maybe you disagree that there would be mass panic, in which case I would be interested in why you would think that.
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Old 8th September 2011, 06:42 PM   #2 (permalink)
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Re: How would you manage a first contact?

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Originally Posted by Vertigo View Post
I really canít think of any way that contact could be made without generating panic.
I agree. And to add to that: we (humans) can barely tolerate each others' differences as is, so there's no way I can see us not flipping the hell out.

I really don't know how I'd manage it if it were up to me. I'd probably bring pizza and beer and invite them over for dinner. That sounds like a smartass answer, but I'm not sure how else one could handle it. Breaking bread together has worked throughout the ages.
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Old 8th September 2011, 07:35 PM   #3 (permalink)
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Re: How would you manage a first contact?

John Scalzi's "free" on-line book Agent to the Stars is a humorous look at this very problem.

But to answer the proposed question seriously, without FTL flight, how long has the ship been in transit? Assuming a technology asymptotically close to lightspeed and coming from one of the nearby stars, would the visitors already know something about us? If so, wouldn't they try to contact us somehow before starting the flight?

If we now assume engines significantly slower than light and/or a flight starting from a much greater distance, suppose the crew had no clue of our existence before the flight started. Using the facilities on board and without guidance from back home, the visitors must come up with a solution as they drop towards Sol. This is pretty much the scenario presented in the first place. The cat is already out of the bag, as the starship's deceleration is visible with the Earth technology now evident to the visitors. What do you do?

Have the visitors learned enough about us to take a shot at sending a message? Do the visitors even know enough about us to understand that a very large portion of humanity is irrational, or would any sign of panic completely mystify them? (Consider James P. Hogan's "Giants" who were not war-like or devious because of the evolution of their biology. No predators.) Psychology is a very big part of this problem. Keep in mind that the ship is already visible. Do you stop at the Moon, or better yet Mars and wait for the natives to calm down?
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Old 8th September 2011, 09:12 PM   #4 (permalink)
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Re: How would you manage a first contact?

They could post an intro thread on the chrons?
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Old 8th September 2011, 09:25 PM   #5 (permalink)
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Re: How would you manage a first contact?

D'uh! They'd contact The Leader of the Free World! Haven't you seen the movies?
And LOL at RJM.

Does SETI have a return address? Or Voyager? i.e. a particular frequency they could reply on, or a code embedded in the signal they can use to ID themselves?
Rather than a voice message they could send something in code, so complex that only the experts could decode it and then take it to the authorities.

The best thing to avert panic may be a dripfeed of information, rather than a grand entrance.

Oh, and I'm sorry to hear about your mother, Vertigo. Hopefully they'll return her soon.
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Old 8th September 2011, 10:49 PM   #6 (permalink)
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Re: How would you manage a first contact?

(Given that Vertigo seems determined to avoid causing panic, I expect him to keep mum on that subject, alchemist.)


Is it definite that any technically known sort of deceleration is bound to be seen? What sort of radiant energy is given out by, say, a high-speed ion stream (assuming the ion stream itself isn't aimed in our direction)? Could there be natural sources of such energy so that we would not have our attention drawn to the unnatural source?
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Old 8th September 2011, 11:25 PM   #7 (permalink)
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Re: How would you manage a first contact?

I believe the arrival of an alien life form on our doorstep would create mass panic regardless of how friendly or otherwise their opening gambit.

At least 75% of the Earth's population believe in a deity. The snag is that a 'more capable' life form would show we were the arse end of that deity's grand design.

The options are that they were formed first in, which case we are the rib ends and muck that was left over, or we were formed first, but hey, he made a more advanced version after he saw the mess he turned out here. (since they get here first in both options)

We all know what his grand design is for the also rans. They are the fodder on which the highest life form will feed. Look how he allowed us to to screw up our world.

So friendly or otherwise, it looks like it's the needles and probes for the humans.

It's only fair though. We'd do it to any planet we ever managed to discover.
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Old 9th September 2011, 12:28 AM   #8 (permalink)
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Re: How would you manage a first contact?

Some interesting responses there and Agent to the Stars is one of the books that got me thinking about this.

First I don't think they would know much of anything about us before they arrived. Stuff I have read reckons that even in our heyday of undirected radio signals those signals would only have been detectable up to about a light year away. More recently we have transmitted much more efficiently and I doubt our presence could be detected even that close. The only transmissions likely to have reached across interstallar space would be things like military radar but what are the chance of such a thing happening to point in just the right direction to catch another inhabited planet? And even if it did, it would move off them again in seconds (microseconds?).

So I think it unlikely my aliens had foreknowledge of our presence.

Now could they arrive undetected? If they think the solar system is a possible haven of life and if maybe prior experience has taught them that first contact could be fraught, they might try to arrive "quietly". Apart from anything else if the life (us) could see them well ahead of time then they might make militaty preparations and everything could go pear shaped. How could they do this? If they have time (and interstellar travel without FTL kind of presumes that) then I think it might be possible, though I don't know enough about astrogation to be sure.

The way I figure it, to be efficient a ships drive would be very focused sending out whatever drive exhaust it uses in a very tight beam. So if you plotted your course so that you are "missing" the system whilst decelerating, you should be able to take up a remote comet like orbit around the system without ever actually pointing your drive directly at it. From there it should be easy to use much the same tactic to move in closer. You will of course be detected eventually but not before you are much closer.

However here's another idea. Just before you start decelerating you fire a flyby probe at the system. No drive would be necessary as it has all your existing velocity. Send another one later maybe after you've killed some speed. The probe(s) would simply fly by and transmit as much information as they can gather as they pass. Being small and with no drive they are very unllikely to be detected.

Quote:
Do you stop at the Moon, or better yet Mars and wait for the natives to calm down?
I like that idea Metryq and I really can't thing of anything much better. Stay well back, present as little threat as possible and talk fast

Quote:
Rather than a voice message they could send something in code, so complex that only the experts could decode it and then take it to the authorities.
Again I quite like that idea, maybe in combination with Metryq's above. Except it still doesn't solve the problem, it only delays it. At some point the masses have to be told before it leaks out in an uncontrolled manner.

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It's only fair though. We'd do it to any planet we ever managed to discover.
Maybe that's the point. If we ever go out there these are the decisions we might have to take.
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Old 9th September 2011, 01:17 AM   #9 (permalink)
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Re: How would you manage a first contact?

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Originally Posted by Ursa major View Post
Is it definite that any technically known sort of deceleration is bound to be seen? What sort of radiant energy is given out by, say, a high-speed ion stream (assuming the ion stream itself isn't aimed in our direction)?
Vertigo assumed a technology not incredibly ahead of ours, which I assumed to mean engineering we may have imagined, but not realized. With that in mind:

There Ain't No Stealth In Space

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If the spacecraft are torchships, their thrust power is several terawatts. This means the exhaust is so intense that it could be detected from Alpha Centauri. By a passive sensor.

The Space Shuttle's much weaker main engines could be detected past the orbit of Pluto. The Space Shuttle's manoeuvering thrusters could be seen as far as the asteroid belt. And even a puny ship using ion drive to thrust at a measly 1/1000 of a g could be spotted at one astronomical unit.

This is with current off-the-shelf technology. Presumably future technology would be better.
They're not sneaking into the Solar system unseen.
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Old 9th September 2011, 02:13 AM   #10 (permalink)
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Re: How would you manage a first contact?

Yeah but as I said, do they need to point the drive at the Solar System in order to get here?

Also another thought is that if they are using some variant of the Bussard ramjet then, as I understand it, it works passively in deceleration. There is no actual drive; it uses the drag effect of the ramscoop to decelerate. That might not seem enough but the problem with the Buzzard ramjet is that under acceleration the thrust only just outweighs the drag. So the drag is enough to slow you down (and incidentally store up enough fuel to get you back up to ramjet speeds when you want to leave).

Edit: I would also add that the stuff on that page is really talking about battle type SF scenarios; trying to hide from someone who is actively looking for you. Yes they could constantly scan the whole sky every four hours but if you're not expecting anyone then your're not looking for them. Sure people searching for asteroids might spot you but I suspect only if they were very lucky.

Last edited by Vertigo; 9th September 2011 at 02:26 AM.
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Old 9th September 2011, 03:37 AM   #11 (permalink)
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Re: How would you manage a first contact?

Well the plan was to have a huge tourist ship just float on in, with cute Star-Warsy friendly aliens aboard, in order to get over the hump of icky scary bug aliens scaring everyone.
First contact for the human race as a whole will be big fun, should dominate TV for months.
Last I remember they were all nicely disguised as clouds and staying out of sight until FC day, whenever that is set for.
There will be huge problems that nobody has thought of yet, though. Big. Nasty problems with uhh what people have been up to. Aliens don't recognize Governments or money of hereditary power structures like we do, so that's what I'm waiting for, the actual truth about the space prog and a few other things. Oh, and the minutely detailed recordings of the history of our solar system and galaxy.
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Old 9th September 2011, 08:28 AM   #12 (permalink)
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Re: How would you manage a first contact?

I think all organised systems, such as are necessary for conducting space exploration, will be hierarchical. Even a fishing boat has a skipper with a licence
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Old 9th September 2011, 09:17 AM   #13 (permalink)
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Re: How would you manage a first contact?

How do they slow down? No, this is not a facetious question; if we can
Quote:
assume that the aliens' science is not so far different to ours. IE they have not discovered any radical new science concepts
, then they have no gravity generators or 'inertial compensators' to absorb the deceleration forces (assuming their propulsion system powerful enough to generate several tens of gs of delta v in what must be a considerable mass to handle interstellar timescales, several megatonnes, at least) so should slow down from cruising speed - at, at most a couple of gravities. Which means decades from "tuning on the brakes" and arrival. And almost any system of braking would be detectable well outside the confines of the solar system, be it solar sail parachute or reaction drive (have you looked at reverse gear on a bussard ramjet? messy). The "almost" involves mass to energy conversion and a collimated beam of many kilos of photons aimed carefully off the target planet; but even that would ionise the solar wind in a ruler-straight line while you were still light weeks out).

So humanity would have time to adjust to the situation. A whole generation, between the "scientist have detected" headlines (with their cartload of cranks and cults, most dying down within the year), the "communication has been established with", as the incoming vessel filters "eastenders" and "the weakest link" out of the interference caused by their own drive, and struggle to decode language, society and culture out of the static, while SETI experts with new massive budgets helpfully explain that 2 +2 =4, the exchange of communication phases, before the "is synchronising with the international space station and orbital Hilton complex where ambassadors are gathering…" phase.

Call me optimistic, but I thing that the slow, incremental acquisition of contact would give humanity the chance to adapt to, and even get bored by and be more interested by the football, the revelation. There'd be the same sum panic spread across so many years that it would be homoeopathically diluted below ground hysteria levels. A few SF fans would peruse each tiny development, analyse and argue, but they're not the ones (any more than the conspiracy theory excessives, or the cattle mutilator nuts) who are going to cause disruptive reactions. Even religions would have time to adjust and get their stories straight (and disapprove logically).

With a superdrive that could bring them to a halt in a matter of days the argument is very different; but that involves new physics, not just a refinement of what we already have.
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Old 9th September 2011, 09:52 AM   #14 (permalink)
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Re: How would you manage a first contact?

Well, up until Chris' post I was firmly in the 'there is no way of them arriving without causing panic' scenario, but I can see that a slow arrival would dilute the panic to manageable levels.

I think it is a good reason why, if there are any sentiant species out there travelling across the stars, they might avoid first contact with us until we have made significant discoveries of alien civilisations ourselves (although that is my projecting human ideas/thoughts/concerns onto aliens which is silly)

But it is an interesting point, they can't just turn up (anyway with the science it would be hard to just appear without someone noticing them pull up) and if they revealed themselves there would be mass panic, they would only have time to learn about us (without us spotting them) if they arrived slowly and stealthily, which they could be in the process of doing and have been doing for the last century (who knows how long it would take to slow down). Also if they had gone to all the trouble to come this far and meet us, maybe the moment of first contact (first impressions) would be so important they would spend years/decades/even centuries preparing for it to get it right. Saying that, I'm sure if we sent people off to meet other species the public wouldn't be so patient, then again it's probably best that the public don't make these kind of decisions.

A very interesting question Vertigo
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Old 9th September 2011, 12:46 PM   #15 (permalink)
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Re: How would you manage a first contact?

Ok I like that, Chris and I could see that a slow feed of information might work well. So how about we extend it further. If the aliens send out an information gathering flyby probe ahead of their arrival (as described above) and it detects technology, maybe it could repeatedly send out a hello signal to Earth as it flies by. Something that is very obviously coherent and not going to be mistaken for anything natural. The fact that the aliens at this stage (remember this probe has probably been dispatched around their half way point on route to the solar system) probably do not know our language etc. is probably an advantage. The signal would be received, recognised for what it is and announced and then be followed by some years of decoding it (make it obviously artificial in nature but not too easy to decode as per Alchemist's suggestion). That interval would be plenty of time for people to get used to the idea (and bored).

I see this as similar to the initial media panic about the LHC collider "they're going to make a black hole that will swallow the world". By the time it was actually turned on I suspect only those interested in science paid much attention. Sure this would grap more public attention but the same sort of dynamics might be possible.

Another advantage of making the first contact by probe is that there is no need for this first probe to announce that they are on the way and so cause possible panic. There would be little possiblity of the probe being detected, it is small and virtually unpowered. It would be travelling at the aliens' maximum interstellar cruise speed which would hopefully be a significant proportion of the speed of light. At these sort of speeds there would obviously be very little time for information gathering or sending. So it would really be able to do little more than say "hi we exist" and send "there's someone here" back to the mother ship. Earth would be able to deduce very little from the probe itself even if they did managed to detect it and figure out its trajectory through the system. They would have no way of knowing whether it was sent from another planetary system or deep space. So really all people on the Earth know is that there is someone out there and they want to be friends (very important to get that last bit across in the first transmission).

The next probe to be sent would be slower (as the aliens have now been decelerating for a while) and could pick up more info to send back to the mother ship as well as send more info to Earth. It is also possible that by then the aliens have figured one or more Earth language if the first probe was able to send back sufficient data.

This could be done several times before actually announcing the aliens' imminent arrival, which (due to relativistic effects) might still be decades away in our planet time even if much less in ship time. You couldn't do it too often without announcing we are on our way as by the third probe the slower speed of each probe would imply that anyway.

Hopefully by the time that is announced everyone is getting used to the idea. It probably wouldn't be a bad idea for the aliens to stress their technological superiority to encourage the humans to accept your peaceful intentions rather than trying to figure out how sling weapons at you! For the same reason the aliens probably also don't really want the humans to know their approach route until the latest possible time. Don't give the possibly hostile humans time to mine their route or lay traps etc.

In this way the whole arrival process could be spread over literally decades of planet time though much less ship time.

Crikey I seem to be going for the mega post on this thread; sorry!
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