A critical plot point in the original “Ghostbusters” movie (spoiler alert if you still haven’t seen it) involves the Ghostbusters capturing ghosts and depositing them in the ecto-containment unit underneath the local fire station – a plan that works well until a city inspector shuts down the ecto-containment unit and the ghosts escape. A similar situation may be happening in real life – although instead of ghosts, the beings are extraterrestrials. A team of scientists has developed a portable device capable of detecting life forms on Mars and other planets … but another scientist warns there are no policies or reporting systems in place for those finding extraterrestrial life forms to follow when they make contact. This sounds like the makings of a reveal party gone bad … or another Ghostbusters sequel.
“If the Biofinder were mounted on a rover on Mars or another planet, we would be able to rapidly scan large areas quickly to detect evidence of past life, even if the organism was small, not easy to see with our eyes, and dead for many millions of years. We anticipate that fluorescence imaging will be critical in future NASA missions to detect organics and the existence of life on other planetary bodies.”
The search for extraterrestrial intelligence may have taken a quantum leap with the announcement of the Compact Color Biofinder, a device developed by a team of University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa researchers which its inventors claim is the first instrument capable of detecting minute amounts of bio-residue on a rock during the daytime. That ‘time of day’ ability is critical because most searches for biological residue on ancient rocks depends on the fact that biological materials -- amino acids, fossils, sedimentary rocks, plants, microbes, proteins, lipids and the likes -- have strong organic fluorescence signals that can only be detected by specialized scanning cameras operating in darkness. The Compact Color Biofinder breaks the mold with its extremely sensitive technology which can pick up those fluorescent signals in bright light. Furthermore, its strength allows it to perform that detective function from a distance of several meters, and it operates so fast that it can keep up with a scanner swinging over large swaths of ground. Finally, the Compact Color Biofinder is small enough to fit on a planetary rover – the perfect new tool for searching for life on other planets, moons and asteroids.
And it works! According to Anupam Misra, lead instrument developer and researcher at the Hawai'i Institute of Geophysics and Planetology at the UH Manoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST), the team tested it on sediment from the Green River formation – the geological remains of a group of intermountain lakes in three basins along the present-day Green River in Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah – and successfully detected the bio-residue of 34-56 million year-old fish fossils. Sonia J. Rowley, the team biologist and co-author on the study published in Scientific Reports, described what this means to NASA and other agencies searching for extraterrestrial life forms:
"The Biofinder's capabilities would be critical for NASA's Planetary Protection program, for the accurate and no-invasive detection of contaminants such as microbes or extraterrestrial biohazards to or from planet Earth."
Anupam Misra was more excited in his assessment:
“The detection of such biomarkers would constitute groundbreaking evidence for life outside of planet Earth."
We have now reached the critical plot point of this story. Researchers have created a device that will search for and identify ET life forms on other planets. Then what? Did they think to get budget money for an ET version of an ecto-containment unit?
“There isn’t anything in place … there’s a well-established chain of boxes that need to be ticked and it would go through a lot of analysis to ensure that what you’re talking about is a real phenomenon. However, once scientists identified what had happened, it’d then be up to the political leaders of the world to decide what to do about it, and as far as I’m aware, there’s no plan in place.”
Professor Fred Watson AM, Australia’s First Astronomer at Large (an actual government position – when is the U.S. going to hire one of these?), has been thinking about this and recently sat down with news.com.au to express his thoughts and concerns about what happens when humans encounter extraterrestrials. From his lofty position within the Australia government, he doesn’t see any plans in place for this close encounter of the fifth kind between humans and intelligent alien life forms. The scariest part of that revelation is this: “It’d then be up to the political leaders of the world to decide what to do about it.” Is that what we want? Haven’t we seen enough sci-fi movies and cable news programs? Watson gave a real example of when we came close to having to decide.
“There was one case with the Breakthrough Listen Project – an initiative funded by a Russian Billionaire, Yuri Milner, at the level of $100 million, which uses two radio telescopes, one of which is in Parkes radio telescope – that received a signal that had similarities to ones we send out ourselves.”
The signal came from Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to us, and the signal resembled something that could have been made by life forms with similar intelligence to humans because its frequency drifted due to the Doppler effect, similar to our radio signals. The scientists eventually ruled it out as an ET signal, but …
“If scientists had a high level of confidence in the signal though, then it would have been publicized in the scientific world.”
That example illustrates the lack of a plan for just a signal from ETs. With the Compact Color Biofinder we’re in the position to encounter life forms on other planets. We know the SETI projects are beaming messages in the direction of exoplanets that look like candidates for having life, and not a day goes by that we don’t have new news about UFO sightings or UAP encounters in the military. With all of that going on, why is there no plan for what happens when we meet the aliens?
“The common view is we are just a complete freak of nature – intelligent life is so rare and is such an unlikely event.”
According to Watson, the answer is human arrogance – while there is overwhelming support for the idea that microbial life exists somewhere other than on Earth, he sees almost “universal” consensus in the scientific community that humans are the highest form of life in the universe and there’s not much chance we’ll ever encounter other intelligent life forms.
“We haven’t seen any signs of intelligent life though – and that’s likely because there aren’t any. If there is, it could be 2 billion light-years away, they might still be building with sticks because it’s such a rarity.”
That may be true, but there should still be a plan for a fifth encounter … shouldn’t there be? If we’re really that arrogant, why is there so much concern about UFOs? It can’t all be due to national security issues, can it? And even if the life isn’t equivalent to our intelligence (and how will we determine that – do we have an ET IQ test?), shouldn’t we have a way to contain or isolate it?
“Ghostbusters” – was it just entertainment or a training film for space scientists?