What would we do if aliens sent us a message? One astronomer says he would reply with the entire contents of the internet.

Whether the extraterrestrials arrive here on a gigantic spaceship or relay a transmission that one of our telescopes pick up, the conversation between most world leaders and other humans might focus on whether it would be dangerous to engage with an alien species or it might go more like this: “Should we invite the aliens for dinner or what?” That’s according to Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer for the nonprofit Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, better known as SETI. But if it were up to him, “I would just send them the internet,” he told International Business Times, because it would give them a lot more information about us and our planet. He gave the example of an alien perusing dog videos online and learning about our relationship with them.

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When it comes to a transmission, rather than a physical visit from aliens, we would have time to collect our thoughts, Shostak notes. Given the distribution of stars in our universe, in many cases the aliens potentially contacting us would be living hundreds of light years away from Earth, which means their transmission took hundreds of years to reach us and our response would take just as long to hit them back.

“There’s no real hurry to get to the microphone and start broadcasting,” Shostak said, and we already broadcast television and radio signals into space constantly.

Despite the massive distances to other stars, people eager to find extraterrestrial life got pumped earlier this week when it was announced that there were some mysterious signals coming from star Ross 128, just the latest out of numerous cases of possible alien contact that have emerged over the years. The star is only 11 light years away from us, which would significantly shrink the travel time of a return transmission. The Planetary Habitability Laboratory, an organization that searches for habitable planets outside of our solar system, said a radio telescope at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico had picked up the weird signals in May, a series of semi-periodic pulses.

Although Ross 128 does not have any planets orbiting it that we know of, the telescope turned to that star while surveying a batch of red dwarfs, many of which do have planets. The stars in this classification are smaller, cooler and less luminous than the sun and, because they might account for up to 70 percent of the universe’s stars, they are considered contenders for harboring habitable planets.

But don’t get too excited just yet; now comes the work of finding those signals’ origin, to see if we have a real lead here or if it’s just another dead end.

The PHL has been looking into the matter, including calling on SETI for help.

kepler-186f Kepler-186f is the first exoplanet scientists discovered in a star’s habitable zone that is comparable to the size of Earth. Photo: NASA/JPL

Abel Méndez, an astrobiologist at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo and the director of the PHL, told IBT his team is still analyzing the data and waiting on similar analysis from SETI scientists working with the Allen Telescope Array near San Francisco and the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia. They may have an answer Friday to the question of whether the mysterious Ross 128 signals are messages from aliens.

On a day-to-day basis, SETI is scanning the sky for radio signals that could have been made by a transmitter, a possible way aliens could send a communication to Earth. When something like the Ross 128 signals comes in, the group is doing a little heavier lifting.

If a telescope picks up something, one of the first steps is moving the antenna away from the alleged source and then back again, to see if the signal fades out and then comes back. If the signal remains no matter where the antenna is pointed, it was probably created by some sort of terrestrial interference, like a satellite. If the signal is limited to one section of the sky, scientists will try to determine if it has a natural source, like activity from a star. Typically stellar emissions and other events will release a broadband radio signal. A narrower signal, like the kind where “you can only find it on one spot of the dial — that’s not natural,” Shostak said. “That’s the hallmark of a transmitter.” Scientists will also compare their findings with those of telescopes in other areas.

The signals from Ross 128, a red dwarf star, is not narrowband, so Shostak said that indicates its origin is likely not an alien society.

Satellites are the most frequent culprits of these mysterious signals, in part because there are thousands of them orbiting the Earth. The senior astronomer said terrestrial interference is the best bet in this case too, but the red dwarf itself could be playing us.

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“These young stars … they’re active, they’re rambunctious and they produce a lot of natural radiation,” he explained.

Although it seems unlikely, Shostak did not completely rule out an extraterrestrial communication. When it comes to these possible transmissions, he’d rather cover all his bases and investigate: He said receiving a mysterious signal and not taking a deeper look is “like finding a lottery ticket and never checking it out to see if it won or not.”

And even if the Ross 128 signals don’t pan out, SETI will keep searching.

Shostak said the scientists don’t often point their instruments directly at known exoplanets because given the sheer number of exoplanets in the universe and knowing that even humans haven’t been broadcasting for very long in Earth’s history, that method is “kind of restrictive.” Instead, the scientists are sweeping through the sky.

It requires time and patience: The Arecibo Observatory’s equipment is massive but compared to the vastness of outer space, Shostak said, “it’s like looking at the sky through a cocktail straw.”

But maybe one day that cocktail straw will bring up something extraordinary.