One day humans may meet an extraterrestrial civilization for the first time. It might be on Earth, or in space. What do we do? Is anyone thinking seriously about this?

There’s no world plan (that the public knows of). No treaty or consensus among spacefaring countries on how we should follow up on first contact with an alien civilization. There have been many proposals made since 1960 but no action.

That’s a problem, according to John Gertz, an author and producer who once sat on the board of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute in California. He’s concerned about what happens after the search is successful. “One way or another, contact with aliens may be imminent,” he wrote in a new paper slated to be published in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, but which has already sparked debate among experts.

Gertz says: “There has been no planning among nations for the aftermath of a first detection. War could break out on Earth as countries scramble to monopolize the technological spoils of interstellar relations with an advanced alien civilization. Or worse, war could break out between humanity and E.T. after one country or another, acting alone, botches interstellar negotiations.”

Extraterrestrial diplomacy begins with contacting aliens. SETI projects began in 1960, with a radio telescope experiment by NASA astronomer Frank Drake, who also developed the Drake Equation for estimating the number of civilizations in our galaxy. Since then it’s expanded to include many of the world’s most powerful radio telescopes.


The largest current experiment is called Breakthrough Listen(BL) a 10-year initiative, launched in July 2015, and headquartered at the University of California, Berkeley. It uses the 100-meter Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, in Green Bank, W.Va., and the 64-meter Parkes Observatory telescope, in New South Wales, Australia, plus the 64 telescope MeerKAT array in South Africa. They are looking for technosignatures. A technosignature is any sign that technology exists or existed somewhere beyond our solar system. The BL can search millions of candidate sites a year. The candidates are chosen in part from confirmed exoplanets discovered by other telescopes, like TESS.

The SETI Projects

A pioneer of SETI: Carl Sagan

John Gertz’s Cornell University paper on Interstellar Diplomacy, arXiv (2023). DOI: 10.48550/arxiv.2308.14917

But SETI has its limits. It only looks at single stars for a short period of time, and during that small window, a signal must be sent and received. Many competing scientists have gone back and forth about SETI, arguing for and against its effectiveness. Gertz says that it’s more likely an advanced civilization would send out targeted probes rather than beaming messages to planets.

“The classic SETI paradigm has been challenged by myself and others who have argued that ET’s better strategy for making contact would be to send physical probes to our solar system for that purpose,” he writes. “An alien probe might enter into dialog with Earth in near real-time.”

If a probe visits us, there’ll be a wide and extreme range of proposals. Some might want to destroy it, some might want to capture it, and some might want to treat it as some type of ambassador— and, inevitably, some may start worshipping it or see it as an opportunity to seize power themselves.

The probe could act as a type of Trojan Horse. It might tell us what we want to hear and might try to dupe us into complacency while its builder sends a fleet our way. The probe could be completely beneficent and try and help humanity solve our problems as a gesture of goodwill.

What if the aliens also have competing agendas?

Voyager Golden Record now in interstellar space

Gertz suggests that whatever the nature of first contact is, we need an international treaty to govern our response. What could a space treaty look like? We may already have a blueprint in the UN’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) from 1959. Nations have mostly abided by its terms.

Transparency between nations is a critical piece for this global commission, according to Gertz. Nations engaged in SETI and similar endeavors must be willing to share information equally: “The envisioned treaty should contain provisions for inspections and verification.” This will be challenging, given that America shares its SETI data stream with China, but there’s no reciprocity, so far. Other nations may also be less forthcoming if there is actual alien contact. Extraterrestrial diplomacy could be tried by a rogue nation.

But…humanity has to start somewhere. “A first draft treaty need not be rocket science,” he writes. His treaty begins: “Recognizing the common interest of all humankind in establishing peaceful relations with such Alien Beings.” “…relations with an ETI should be carried out on behalf of all of humanity.”

We agree. It’s up to us to ask our representatives.


David Raiklen
David Raiklen

David Raiklen wrote, directed and scored his first film at age 9. He began studying keyboard and composing at age 5. He attended, then taught at UCLA, USC and CalArts. Among his teachers are John Williams and Mel Powel.
He has worked for Fox, Disney and Sprint. David has received numerous awards for his work, including the 2004 American Music Center Award. Dr. Raiklen has composed music and sound design for theater (Death and the Maiden), dance (Russian Ballet), television (Sing Me a Story), cell phone (Spacey Movie), museums (Museum of Tolerance), concert (Violin Sonata ), and film (Appalachian Trail).
His compositions have been performed at the Hollywood Bowl and the first Disney Hall. David Raiken is also host of a successful radio program, Classical Fan Club.