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Twenty years from now we might get a call from aliens. In 2017, a powerful radio transmission was aimed at exoplanet GJ 273b, thought to be able to support life. Its message, sent by the alien-hunting group Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence International, contained instructions on how to understand Earthling math, music and time. If it lands on intelligent alien ears once it arrives in about a decade, E.T. now has our number.

Of course, a cosmic call might come much sooner. Space transmissions hoping to attract an alien response have been going out since 1962, when Soviet scientists sent a message in Morse code to the planet Venus in the first attempt at intergalactic communication.

Even if our calls generate no response, it seems increasingly likely humanity will stumble upon life somewhere in the universe one of these days. NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, the most powerful telescope ever sent into the cosmos, is scheduled to launch this winter and will enable scientists to examine thousands of distant planets for "biosignatures"—clues that a planet's atmosphere has been influenced by life.

Concerns over decades of unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP)—known more commonly as unidentified flying objects (UFOs)—in our atmosphere, many sighted by military personnel, have recently prompted politicians on both sides of the aisle to push for an official agency to handle UAP investigations.

But are we prepared for an encounter of the "Third Kind"?

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