Former SETI director explains what will happen when extraterrestrials contact us

Just over 30 years ago this month, E.T., The Extra-Terrestrial hit the big screen and made everyone feel warm and fuzzy about aliens with E.T.'s sweetly urgent message about wanting to "phone home."

This summer, Hollywood alien fare paints a far gloomier picture with a deadly alien monster in After Earth, a zombie invasion in World War Z, giant robots in Pacific Rim and more robot invaders in The World's End.

But what do the experts really think?

We asked astronomer, Jill Tarter, the TED Prize–winning, former director of the world's most ambitious search for alien life at the Center for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Research, who we interviewed on "How to Find Extraterrestrial Life" for our book on success, The Art of Doing. Tarter gave us SETI's 9-point plan should there be an extraterrestrial attempt of any kind to contact us:

  1. Open the champagne (currently a bottle of $10 Freixenet sitting in the observatory fridge).
  2. Verify our findings.
  3. Get independent confirmation from a qualified facility to make sure it's not a hoax.
  4. Call the directors of all SETI-related observatories.
  5. Send out an official notice of discovery that goes to all the astronomical observatories of the world.
  6. Inform our major donors.
  7. Complete and immediately send for publication the scientific paper we've already prepared a template for.
  8. Alert our interpreters, astronomers designated to explain our findings to regional and local news media.
  9. Hold a press conference to announce the discovery to the world, because the signal isn't being sent to our observatory in California, it's being sent to planet Earth and planet Earth deserves to know about it.

"Carl Sagan envisioned such a moment as a circus springing up and surrounding the discovery site," Tarter told us. "Stephen Hawking believes that firing back something immediately could get the whole neighborhood destroyed and others believe that kind of attitude is rooted in paranoia. So our mandate is to wait for a calm and reasoned global consensus on what to say and how to say it. Then again, once a signal has been detected, anyone with a transmitter can get on the horn and shout back out whatever they want."

Something else to consider, Tarter noted, was summed up in the words of a SETI facility director: "Honestly, I wouldn't know whether to call for protection or port-a-potties."