How easy would it be to cover up alien life?

The surface of TRAPPIST-1f

It’s a godawful small affair

It wasn’t aliens, despite what The Telegraph claimed, but it was cool. TRAPPIST-1 has a whole clutch of planets orbiting, including several rocky Earth sized planets in its habitable zone.

“Well,” the conspiracy theorists are already saying, “of course they wouldn’t announce the discovery of alien life. They’d cover it up.”

But could they? How easy would it be to actually cover up the existence of aliens? Here’s a little follow up to Tuesday’s post. If scientists did discover aliens, how could the government keep it under wraps?

Distant twinklings

Nasa estimates that there are well over 10 billion planets in the galaxy. That’s an awful lot of worlds, and the odds seem pretty good that one has life of some kind. As I mentioned yesterday, this could be detected by scanning the atmospheres of planets to look for hints of gases that indicate life. Another technique involves directly imaging worlds and watching out for regular changes in colour that might hint at seasonal growth. At present, only a few exoplanets have been seen directly, but there are a number of different groups working on it. Nothing we can see with current technology could prove the existence of basic lifeforms in deep space, but it could hint at it.

This hints at one of the big problems with hiding anything in space – anyone can see it. I mean, right now, you can go on any satellite tracking website and find out exactly where the top secret spy satellites of the world’s intelligence agencies are. Rockets are big and loud, and thermal insulation foil is shiny (a satellite that didn’t reflect or radiate would get so hot in the sunlight that it would burn up).

Spotting an exoplanet takes a bit more than pointing a telescope at it, but not as much as you might think. I mean, look how many exoplanet detection projects there are. Covering up the existence of the (very equivocal) evidence of life would be basically impossible and not really worth it. What would the government gain out of covering up the existence of lichen on a planet two hundred light-years away?

Incidentally, just to back up what I said on Tuesday, the subject of the press conference did indeed leak – the site Nasa Watch was able to work out what it was by tracking down pre-prints and other half-published data from the press conference team. Research projects leave too much of a paper trail, even if you try to be secretive – until you’ve analysed your data, how do you which bits to cover up?

Keeping Up with the Kardashevs

How much power do we, as a civilisation, produce? Well according to the Russian scientist Nikolai Kardashev, not nearly enough. The Kardashev scale, named after its inventor, is a way of classifying species by how much power they control. A Type I civilisation can harness the power of a planet, and a Type II civilisation, the power of a star, and a Type III civilisation, the power of a galaxy. Humans are not quite Type I (given the environmental damage we’re already doing to our planet, it’s questionable if we would ever want to be one).

A Type II civilisation is probably the smallest we can detect at the moment – you have to burn bright to outshine your own star. One possible good sign of extraterrestrial life would be to see the massive building projects alien civilisations could construct. For instance, aliens might build a Dyson swarm – a cluster of solar panels floating around a star, absorbing its energy.

And it’s possible we’ve found one. Tabby’s Star, around 1,200 light years away, is an odd star that grows lighter and darker in a weird pattern, as if something large is orbiting it and blocking its light. On the list of possible interpretations, aliens are near the bottom – much more likely is that it’s surrounded by a cloud of dust and comets – but the mere fact that serious astronomers are talking about the possibility shows what an oddball it is.

And you can see what an oddball it is too. Tabby’s Star is too dim to see with the naked eye, but a decent back garden telescope can pick it out, and the bigger telescopes observatories and universities use can track it no problem – searching through photographic archives has founds hints that the star’s dimming has gone on for years, unnoticed among its millions of neighbours (well, maybe).

But again, here’s the problem. Anyone can see Tabby’s Star. You couldn’t hide a giant solar system-sized civilisation from Earth.

As for galaxy-sized civilisations – bad luck.

Phoning home

Here’s where we start to get plausibly cover-up-able. You’ve probably heard the statistic that the Earth has been broadcasting for 70 years now, and right now aliens 70 light years away might just be picking up our grainy black-and-white TV shows. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately, if you’re worried about being invaded by malevolent film-quoting aliens) that’s not quite the case. For obvious reasons, we don’t shoot our broadcasts directly into space. Only a fraction of what we broadcast ever leaves the Earth – and that might actually be decreasing, as digital TV and fibre optic cable takes over from microwave and satellite relays.

What does get into space weakens rapidly thanks to the inverse square law – double the distance that that the radio waves travel, and their intensity drops four-fold. Unless the broadcast is extremely well targeted, with a very precise directional antenna or some kind of laser, it will be lost almost immediately. Assuming aliens communicate the same way we do, the only way to have a chance of detecting anything is to use a really huge dish – say the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico or the FAST telescope in China – and hope the aliens are, as the book title goes, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. At present, only a small handful of these extremely giant dishes exist, and all operate with government cooperation, and the data they produce has to be processed by supercomputing projects like SETI@home. Here, it would be possible to keep the results quiet – if China, Russia, the US, India and Europe, plus maybe some smaller radio telescope operators like Australia were able to agree to do so.

And if aliens don’t communicate like us – say, they use neutrinos, or gravitational waves, or tachyons, or maybe they use radio waves but in a way that is totally different to any modulation we use – well, we’re never going to detect them with SETI anyway.

Close encounters

An old photo of a flying saucer

Old-school

If conspiracy theorists are to be believed, aliens have been visiting in UFOs for years, and the government has been covering it all up. Funnily enough, as camera quality has increased, UFO photo quality has decreased. No-one ever publishes pictures of floating pie tins any more, just grainy out-of-focus dots in the sky. We’re jaded. We have drones and CGI, so even without a CIA cover-up, no-one is going to believe this kind of photo is evidence of anything.

If anyone did get a really good photo or video – something that was definitely not a plane, or a bit of dirt on the lens, or the balloon house from Up – could it be taken totally off the internet? Content matching is used by sites like Youtube and Facebook to identify problematic material – from copyrighted music to ISIS propaganda – and hide it. There are ways around these, as a search for supposedly-blocked Beatles songs will discover, so it could certainly slow the spread of the material, but it probably couldn’t prevent it entirely. A more extreme solution would be possible in places like China, where all internet content is filtered. Going to extremes – for example, blocking people using the word “today” on June 4 – China can keep a lot of information under wraps. Even then, there are ways around it, but it’s fair to say that the spread would be slow and the government could track most users who were spreading it, bar possibly a few using services like tor.

How else could UFOs be identified, other than terrible photos? One possibility is radar – during the “Belgian UFO wave” for instance, there were various conflicting claims that fighter jets following the UFOs had seen them on radar, for instance (although on closer inspection, the radar locks turned out to have been, erm, the jets seeing each other). In theory, any air traffic controller or weather forecaster would be able to see them, so UFOs should appear on public radar feeds. But a conspiracist could handwave their absence away easily enough – we have stealth technology that can make a bomber look like a sparrow, so why shouldn’t aliens?

It’s also suggested that modern technology and scientific breakthroughs are stolen from crashed spaceships or alien benefactors, but covering this up would take possibly more work than anything else – you would need a whole fake research industry, constantly churning out scientific papers that incrementally build their way towards the alien discoveries; you would need teams of inventors pretending to design, develop and patent technology that already exists; and you would need to spend billions building machines like the Large Hadron Collider to give you results you already know.

Knights of Cydonia

A mountain that looks a bit like a face, but not much

The face of Mars, in unflattering HD

For a while, a popular belief was that Nasa had found pyramids on Mars, together with a sculpture of a weird face, and was covering up the existence of Martian civilisation. Their only space race rivals, the USSR, had failed to map Mars properly thanks to bad luck with dust storms, so Nasa really were the only ones who knew what the planet looked like.

However, eventually more advanced cameras proved that these “sculptures” were just mountains with weird shadows – although a few die-hards cling to the belief that the later, HD photos are fake and the original blurry ones are genuine.

Now, the Americans have been joined by Europe and India, whose orbiters both have good quality colour cameras. I couldn’t find any ISRO pictures of the region, but ESA have released a 3D image of it, and it looks just like a lumpy mountain. Any cover-ups must therefore involve the US, India, and ESA’s member states all working together, which significantly increases the chances of the conspiracy falling apart.

Let’s rock

Finally, what if Nasa’s Curiosity rover has discovered life on Mars, and they’re keeping it quiet? Well, it’s certainly feasible. Nasa has no rivals on the surface of Mars, at least until the European-Russian ExoMars arrives in 2020. Previous landers from Europe and the Soviet Union all crashed or failed to send back any data. But what would Nasa gain? Nasa is so desperate for budget that they play up even extremely weak evidence for alien life to build public excitement. Why let their funds be slashed when they could announce life on Mars and become the most popular agency of the US government?

The only other places in the solar system where life is plausible are two large moons: Europa and Titan (some others, like Io and Enceladus, are also named, but these are pretty weak candidates). No-one yet explored Europa, which is covered in a thick layer of ice. Titan, which is freezing cold and toxic to Earth life, but at least has methane lakes and an atmosphere, has been explored by a joint US-European mission (Nasa ran the orbiter, ESA and the Italian Space Agency ran the lander). Again, you could cover up the existence of life here, but why? When it costs $3 billion getting to Titan, you really want to show some results.

In summary, the government could cover up alien life, if it was small and far away. But in that case why would it bother?

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