As we move into the outer Solar System and beyond, the possibility exists that we may encounter an extraterrestrial species engaged in similar exploration. How we approach first contact has been a theme of science fiction for many years (Murray Leinster’s 1945 story ‘First Contact’ is a classic treatment). In the essay below, Ken Wisian looks at how we can develop contact protocols to handle such a situation. A Major General in the US Air Force (now retired) with combat experience in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans, Ken brings a perspective seasoned by command and a deep knowledge of military history to issues of confrontation and outcomes, building on our current rules of engagement to ask how we will manage an encounter with another civilization, one whose consequences would be momentous for our species.
By Ken Wisian Ph.D
Galactic Ventures LLC, Austin, Texas
How do two ships approach each other in a first contact setting? When it happens it will be a pivotal moment for human history. The slightest mistake or misperceived intention could cascade into violence. Therefore even future deep space robotic probes, let alone a true interstellar ship whether crewed by humans or AI, should incorporate courses of action for this possibility,
The development of first contact protocols is obviously rife with unknowns since we only have a one-planet historical data set build on; nevertheless we must proceed. The bulk of the thinking on first contact so far has focused on a remote contact via electromagnetic signal exchange (SETI) or finding non-sentient microbiota (aka Apollo post-mission quarantine), but what if we stumble upon another intelligence in space? Admittedly, this may not be the most likely course of action, but as we start to move deeper into space it is an increasing possibility. Through centuries of trial and error, protocols have been developed for military ship and aircraft encounters on Earth. These earth protocols provide as good a basis as we have for building extraterrestrial first contact protocols.
This paper will review human rules of encounter currently used and build a set of simple rules for a ship-to-ship encounter in space based on the assumption that there is no effective communication prior to or during the encounter.
How do you approach a totally unknown entity in such a way as to not provoke a hostile reaction? This is not as easy a question as it might first appear. We are loaded with human-cultural preconceptions that are frequently subconscious. An example; smiling in humans is universally regarded as a friendly gesture, but in some primates and most species on earth (with a face that is) showing your teeth is a dominance/aggressive/threat gesture. And this difference here on earth exists between closely related species – who is to say how divergent the interpretation of gestures might be between species that evolved in different star systems? Another example is the white flag. Most industrialized states recognize it as a sign of surrender, some also would recognize its use to request parley, but it is far from universal in time or across cultures even today on earth. Thus nothing can be taken for granted and substantial on-the-spot sound judgement will be required.
Why worry about the vanishingly small chance of an unanticipated first contact? Risk management both in the military and civilian world considers not just the probability of an event, it also considers the potential consequences. In the case of a first contact, the odds of such an event are nearly vanishingly small, but they are cancelled out (and then some) by the off-the-chart potential impact of an encounter unintentionally entering an instantaneous, violent escalation spiral. Thus it is critically important that humans think through first contact in space before it happens.
Science fiction (SF) deals frequently with first contact scenarios. The volume of material is immense – far too much to even briefly review here. SF has explored, often quite well and with great “outside the box” thinking probably every conceivable scenario. So while there are no specific SF references here, the body of SF work informs all aspects of this paper.
We have a limited knowledge base from which to start and extrapolate general rules for first encounters, namely one technological species – homo-sapiens. This situation presents a danger that we must guard against as best we can; anthropomorphic bias. Given that potential bias, we will none the less start by looking at what humans do in the closest analog we currently have for first encounters; the meeting of unknown, neutral or potentially hostile ships and or aircraft. Through trial and (often fatal) error there are now well-defined rules of conduct for these situations (up to the level of international law).
The human-human contact experience is perhaps our best foundation upon which to build a set principles and protocols for a potential encounter in space. The envisioned scenario; two ships meeting in space rest on several assumptions.
1. No effective telecommunication. There may be attempts to communicate via electromagnetic or other means, but understanding has not been achieved, thus we are without effective communication – “comm-out”.
2. Neither side is overtly hostile, but both are guardedly cautious.
3. At least one of the ships involved has “reasonable” maneuvering capability.
a. This will most likely be an “endpoint” encounter, in a solar system. An encounter in transit in deep interstellar space would likely mean neither ship has the ability to stop and/or maneuver in order to match vectors and effect a rendezvous.
Not a scenario assumption, but an important point is that these protocols apply just as well to Artificial Intelligence (AI) crewed ships as they do to human crewed ships. Also, ships is taken to include space stations or other similar outposts. Even probes without true AI can incorporate complex, branched Courses Of Action (COAs) for dealing with encounters. For instance, detection of radiation anywhere in a wide range of EM frequencies that does not correlate with known astronomical sources would be a target to slew all sensors to and report on. At that point, depending on level of sophistication, you enter COAs for determining artificiality etc.
Image: Confronting the unknown. A still from Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Credit: EMI Films / Columbia Pictures.
2. Current human protocols
There are internationally accepted protocols for encounters between ships and correspondingly between aircraft. Some are based on international law and custom (Law of the Seas), some are rules by governing bodies (International Civil Aviation Organization). Similar laws and rules exist also within the boundaries of individual countries. Regardless of origin, they follow broadly similar, mostly common sense (at least to us nowadays) paths based on centuries of experience. Underlying much of this is an unwritten intent to minimize potential misunderstanding that could lead to violence. This point is critical for our purposes. It is difficult enough to minimize misunderstanding and escalation within our own species, it could be significantly more difficult to do the same when civilizations from different stars meet.
Much of the law and customs for ships at sea pertain to piracy or the right of a country to inspect a ship to ensure that it is conducting legal business (particularly in territorial waters). Even here though reasonable cause is required for more than a cursory inspection. The rules governing intercept of aircraft are more slanted towards the need to immediately protect a country from devastating attack that can result from a craft moving at or above supersonic speed and thus can lead much more quickly to lethal action.
In all air and sea cases there is a hierarchy of communication means used to establish meaningful dialog between ships from straightforward radio communication to flag and light signals up to and including weapons fire – the shot across the bow, so yes, even gunfire can be a form of communication. With aircraft there are no flags, but brief maneuvers (such as rocking wings) can be used for communication.
For ships at sea, there are rules for avoiding collision such as pass to the right (starboard). There is also a rule that the most maneuverable ship has primary responsibility to avoid collision. For example a functional ship at sea that comes upon a ship adrift, unable to maneuver, besides having a responsibility to help, is responsible to maneuver so to avoid collision. Correspondingly, the less maneuverable ship is obligated to maintain constant speed and heading or come to a stop. For aircraft meeting aircraft there is a similar most maneuverable has primary responsibility to avoid collision rule, so for instance a powered aircraft has responsibility to avoid a hot air balloon.
For military aircraft or ships meeting other military ships or aircraft there are additional guidelines that are critical for avoiding escalation. First is to avoid collision courses or aggressive maneuvers such as those designed to put one in a (better) shooting position. Right along with that are restrictions on pointing guns or (and this gets tricky) putting support systems such as radars into modes such as target track that are standard preparatories to firing weapons. Radar modes have become particularly problematic as technology has advanced; many weapon system no longer require a distinctive target tracking mode in order to shoot. Furthermore electromagnetic jamming during an intercept is a potentially hostile act. These rules unfortunately are not universally followed and not following them has resulted in very serious international incidents to the present day.
3. Excursion into past human civilizational first contacts
The past record of human civilization first contacts is a well-trodden area of history and will only briefly be covered as it pertains to extraterrestrial scenarios – the longer term consequences such as disease transfer and cultural domination will not be addressed. Less commonly studied though are the details and consequences of the actual first contact. The bottom line is that first encounters have often, though not always turned violent and in such cases the side with a major technological advantage usually wins. Commonly Western Europeans with well advanced gunpowder technology encountering stone or bronze/iron age technologies have won most violent encounters, but have sometimes been overcome bu numbers. The question of why encounters have turned violent and the cause is much more ambiguous – some encounters have been peaceful, but in many cases territoriality and xenophobia have been prompt causes for violence. Who can say for sure that any species encountered may not have these traits (even more markedly than humans)? Perhaps more disturbing, there are human cultures that consider war/killing a necessary prerequisite to full citizen status. Fortunately none of these cultures are dominant on earth today, but what if such a culture achieved an interstellar civilization?
4. Towards a protocol
The above review of human encounter situations and history gives us a good starting point for thinking about alien ship to ship encounters. First a few general principles to go with the assumptions already laid down at the beginning. These principles are distilled from the human contact procedures above which in turn are built upon millennia of experience.
- 1. Be predictable
- 2. Avoid any appearance of hostile intent
- 3. Attempt communication
These seem straightforward, but #2 has many subtleties and #3 is a very complex subject which is beyond the scope or this paper or the expertise of the author.
The principles are in priority order; communicating is far less important than the closely related ideas of being predictable and not showing hostile intent. These principles are broadly applicable in human experience. For example besides applying at the level of international affairs, these are also appropriate at the level of individuals for an encounter with law enforcement around the world, driving a car, or encountering strangers on the street.
What has not been stated before is the underlying motivation for these principles and that is to avoid putting the other party into a position where they have to make a snap judgement about your intent. In human interactions between two wary parties ambiguity of intent is almost always interpreted in the most hostile way (unless the parties have a considerable experience base, which in a first contact they will not, that allows them to presume accidental ambiguity versus hostility). It is also important to note that for the foreseeable future, considering that we have only just become a spacefaring species, we are most likely to be the less technologically advanced of the two encountering civilizations and thus it becomes particularly important that we not precipitate any escalation that we are very likely to lose.
Image: David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and a famous monolith, from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
First, be predictable. Being predictable is taken to mean with respect to maneuvering primarily. If it is possible to determine that one ship has a decided maneuver advantage on the other, then rendezvous can be attempted with the ships adopting the convention of the most maneuverable ship takes primary responsibility for a safe rendezvous. In these cases gradual, deliberately slow maneuvers would be employed even if there is capability to rapidly affect course changes. With regards to maneuvers there are multiple COAs available. The simplest is to make no changes to what you are doing; if “coasting” – continue, if drive engines are engaged, continue at current setting. Alternatively, you might want to stop engines (this is not the same as stopping in space, which is probably not a practical thing to do (for that matter what frame of reference would you use to determine “stop”)). Regardless unless there is an overriding need (discussed shortly), maintain heading (in three dimensional terms – maintain vector).
What if one ship is approaching an orbital situation – remember that an encounter will most likely be at the endpoint of an interstellar journey. In such a case, in order to avoid catastrophe it might be necessary to start or continue maneuvers to achieve a safe, stable orbit, but this brings with it a slightly elevated risk misunderstanding. In this situation we would be forced to rely on the other parties’ ability to perceive the obvious need to conduct maneuvers. Note the potential for unintended consequences; for a ship that would need to “flip” end-to-end in order to reverse its engines and thrust, you would not want to “sweep” your thrust vector across the other ship and therefore place them in a position of having to decide if you are about to use you most destructive weapon (main drive) on them.
Secondly, avoid any appearance of hostile intent. This is a much more problematic issue than being predictable. The main problem with avoiding appearance of hostile intent is the perception problem. In any encounter between entities that do not share a common culture, there can be serious misinterpretations of intent and meaning, as exemplified by the smile and white flag examples earlier.
If a ship is equipped with weapons you would obviously not want to point them at the other ship. If practical stowing or deactivating them is good, but this then poses another question: would you want to have weapons that require time to activate completely deactivated, thus costing valuable time to spin up if things go bad?
Besides weapons, other non-destructive systems are used by the military; jammers and expendable decoys for example. These would obviously not want to be triggered (but what might be the difference between jamming and a high-powered attempt at communication?).
“But we are peaceful and will not be going armed into space” you say. Any conceivable ship will have technology/systems that are dual-use. The main drive of any self-powered interstellar ship will obviously be extremely high energy and could be used as a weapon of great range and destructive power, thus even a peaceful braking maneuver (with the drive off) that sweeps the business end of the drive towards the other ship, could prompt a swift reaction. Other systems that must be accounted for include communication systems; radios or lasers strong enough to communicate across interstellar distances could be very destructive at short range. So what is one to think when you see a high power laser move to point at you? Perhaps part of a communication protocol would be to only use low-power omnidirectional radio until good understanding is established. Shielding to protect ship and crew from radiation and or collisions has obvious military application – do you reduce its power, turn it off, or leave it in normal on mode? Can you? What if there is an active collision prevention system that destroys or pushes objects out of the way – that has major weapon potential. Is it safe to turn it off?
Tertiary considerations. Avoid looking like you are hiding (aircraft that turn off transponders are usually considered to have hostile or at least illegal intent). Turn on lights and anything else that makes you easily visible (but will this in turn blind any of the other ships sensors?). In your turn you will obviously use every sensor available to learn about the other ship, but passive sensors are probably best until goodwill is firmly established – an active radar scan may look like targeting to another party (just as targeting and search modes of radars are often indistinguishable in modern aircraft). A decoy, a probe, or a vessel containing materials to allow for communication and understanding, might be indistinguishable from a bomb, when launched from a ship.
Lastly, at what range do these actions need to start? As early as practical, probably at detection of the other ship. Your need to be predictable starts when they can see you and that is probably at least at the point when you can see them, if not much earlier.
What can be determined from the above discussion is that there are vast unknowns in any potential extraterrestrial encounter in space where effective communication is not established in advance. In these circumstances there are good principles to follow – be predictable, display no hostile intent, and attempt to establish communication, but the specific actions involve many gray areas where judgement, assumptions, or just plain hope, will be the guide. For any ship making an interstellar journey the scenarios must be “gamed” extensively in advance, but any COAs or checklist for an encounter should only be a guide/starting point. Flexibility, sound judgement and quick learning will be very important in these circumstances. The number one goal is to not put the other party in the position of having to make an instantaneous judgement about your intent.