Thousands of science fiction novels, comics, shows, and films — such as Epix’s new series War of the Worlds — have presented us with scenarios in which humans meet visitors from another world. Some of them have even proved pretty convincing…
But what would happen if extraterrestrials were to actually come to Earth? And what if they weren’t friendly?
Of course, there’s no REAL way to know how it would all go down. But here are our best guesses as to how the first 24 hours might all play out.
HOW MUCH WARNING WOULD WE HAVE?
First off, some good news for humanity. It’s quite possible we’d have some advance warning that extraterrestrials were on their way to meet us.
We even got a little sneak preview back in October of 2017. Astronomers utilizing Hawaii’s Pan-Starrs telescope detected a long, reddish, cigar-shaped rock pushing its way through the cosmos at a rate of about 50 miles per second.
The rock was eventually named Oumuamua. But at first, no one knew exactly what it was. It didn’t light up like a comet when it passed between Earth and the sun, and it moved in an unconventional orbit, leading some scientists to guess that it might be some kind of alien device or spacecraft.
By June of 2018, enough researchers had taken enough long looks at (and listens to) Oumuamua through a variety of powerful telescopes — both on Earth and in space — to determine that it was a comet after all. Turns out, its unconventional movement was being influenced by little jets of escaping gas.
But if Oumuamua had been filled with little green men (or skinny grey men, or whichever trope you prefer), the process would have unfolded similarly. We’d spot a spacecraft-looking thing, spend months or even years looking at it and listening to it, and eventually come up with a theory or theories about its nature.
HOW WOULD SCIENTISTS REACT
In any case, scientists and astronomers will almost definitely be the first ones to find out about incoming extraterrestrials. Fortunately, they already have a plan for how to let everyone know about it.
The collected term for all of the scientific work that relates to the search for alien life is SETI, which stands for “Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence.” SETI is also the name of a non-profit institute, which serves as a kind of liaison between scientists and the general public.
SETI researchers have created what’s called the Rio Scale, used to measure the likelihood that an observed signal from space originated with an intelligent alien species. 1 means “this signal was almost definitely not sent by aliens.” While 10 means it’s all really happening. If a researcher thinks they’ve identified a signal of alien origin, SETI has a step-by-step protocol in place for how they should react. First, a panel of experts is convened to make sure there’s consensus that it’s definitely aliens and not just another dark comet. Then the findings would be reported to the public via the United Nations.
While scientists continue monitoring the data, they also form a “Post-Detection Task Group” to communicate with the public. Scientists are instructed not to respond to the extraterrestrials in any way without a specific mandate from the UN.
HOW WOULD EVERYDAY PEOPLE REACT?
The MOST famous example of regular people reacting to what they believed is an alien invasion went down on October 30, 1938, when Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre company presented a dramatic radio adaptation of “War of the Worlds.”
The story goes that Welles’ broadcast led to nationwide panic and mass hysteria, as people thought aliens had really landed on Earth and started an invasion.
Honestly, there’s not a lot of evidence that this actually happened. The “panic” was most likely a fake story that was concocted to sell newspapers, then passed into legend after Welles became a notable filmmaker. The Mercury Theatre showcase was not even a popular radio show of the time. It didn’t have enough listeners to spark a true panic. But Orson Welles apologized anyway.
Though of course many people would get scared if they thought aliens were touching down on Main St., some studies suggest that everyone might not completely lose their minds and begin rioting in the streets. Michael Varnum of Arizona State University surveyed reactions to both hypothetical and real-world alien-related news stories and found that the majority of respondents took a “quite positive” view of potential interplanetary neighbors. This study even included people responding to Oumuamua before they knew it was a comet.
Obviously, the fact that the alien life we’ve found so far has been the tiny microbe variety and not humanoids are influencing these results. But other studies indicate that a person’s view of extraterrestrials depends largely on how they view other people, and life on Earth more generally. As SETI Institute psychological Douglas Vakoch puts it: “People who view the world as a hostile place are more likely to think extraterrestrials will be hostile.”
We can include former US President Ronald Reagan in this category. In a 1987 speech to the UN General Assembly, he looked forward to a day when aliens arrived on Earth, leading all of humanity to unite as one in an effort to defeat them.
HOW WOULD THE GOVERNMENT REACT?
So here’s a problem: any species that’s technologically advanced enough to make the trip to Earth would almost certainly be capable of wiping out humanity. We just have to hope that they’ve already evolved beyond the use of war and violence. This was what famed scientist Carl Sagan assumed. In essence: no species could survive long enough to develop space travel unless they had ceased using technology to kill one another.
Space also has a lot of natural resources just sitting around, not getting used, making a potential Earth Colony less enticing. So any Earthling military response to alien visitors will almost definitely be pointless.
Nonetheless, the US military already has two “Space Aggressor Squadrons” trained to handle, and I quote, “off-world warfare.” The 26th and 527 Space Aggressor Squadrons are formally part of the US Air Force and are stationed *somewhere* in Colorado. There, they develop plans for extraterrestrial combat and strategies to defend the security of US interests in space.
For example, the military could use a technique called “Brute Force Jamming.” This would use our satellite networks to transmit a bunch of signals at once, blocking communications and making any incoming messages unintelligible to an alien mothership.
Whatever happens after that initial encounter in the first 24 hours will largely depend on the aliens and what they have planned. The visitors of “War of the Worlds” are something of a worst-case scenario: not only hostile, and technically superior to us in every way, but strategy-minded and prepared. Making the fact that humans are holding out on their own almost certainly futile, but still, impressive.
The Epix series War of the Worlds airs Sundays at 9pm/8pm Central.