This week news media picked up a story that has been slowly percolating through the scientific community. A Russian radio telescope apparently picked up a strange signal that could possibly be artificial, and originate from an extraterrestrial civilization. The signal came from the direction of a star called HD 164595, which is roughly 95 light years from Earth. This star is known to host one large planet, but its surface temperature is too large to support life. That doesn’t rule out the possibility of other inhabited planets orbiting this star, which could be potential sources of transmission.

Further investigations of this signal are now continuing from other radio observatories, but for the moment, nothing is really known for sure. That hasn’t prevented a lot of media speculation, but journalism sometimes leaps well ahead of known facts. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has operated quietly for decades, and there have been several 'near misses' where suspicious signals have been identified, but later discovered to be mundane. Usually, such incidents don’t get media attention. The disclosure of this potential discovery however was made with a lot of publicity.

This analyst, who is a member of the SETI Permanent Committee of the International Academy of Astronautics, has studied the data and believes that the signal is not artificial. ET did not call us. At least, not yet. The 'signal' is most probably a natural astrophysical phenomenon, possibly caused by interference and reflections from debris in interstellar space of some other radio source.

This incident will probably be over in a matter of weeks, but it alerts us to possible questions of an international response to an extraterrestrial discovery. There are various private groups participating in SETI research. The United Nations also has a space office. But nobody has really tested how the international community would respond to a real discovery. Faced with more immediate and tangible crises, this is a scenario that has largely been ignored.

The international community may need to be better prepared. SETI projects are active around the world. Russian billionaire Yuri Milner has sponsored a large search program. China plans to use its new 500-metre diameter radio telescope to hunt for aliens. Planets around other star systems are discovered regularly.

Nobody really knows when or if we will discover evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence, but it would be a major event in human history. It would challenge social, philosophical and spiritual perceptions of the world. It could even provoke civil unrest in some areas. Deciding how to interpret or reply to a transmission would be heavily contested. International relations are complex enough for one world. Complexities would certainly increase if we began to deal with other worlds.

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