Last week, astrophysicist Stephen Hawking warned that if ET were to find us, he’d surely kill us all for possession of our planet. A scary thought, indeed. But, it does raise an interesting issue. Space exploration ethics. What are the ethical rules that a species must obey when they visit an alien planet? It’s something not talked about much in the popular media. It is, after all, a lot sexier to talk about the possibility of humans on Mars and asteroids than it is discussing whether or not we should even go to these destinations in the 1st place.
The Dangers Humans Pose To Space
On April 27, the American Society for Microbiology released an article noting the potential dangers of human interaction with Mars. NASA puts its spacecrafts through vigorous sterilization processes, because if terrestrial bacteria were to hitch a ride on a craft to Mars, it could possibly contaminate our own search for extraterrestrial life and even endanger whatever life may already be there.
“If long-term microbial survival is possible on Mars, then past and future explorations of Mars may provide the microbial inoculum for seeding Mars with terrestrial life,” the researchers said in the article. “Thus, a diversity of microbial species should be studied to characterize their potential for long term survival on Mars.”
Whatever extraterrestrial life may be on the planet obviously isn’t suited to deal with terrestrial bacteria, and could die out because of this. We could even run into a situation where we find life, but it turns out to be left-behind bacteria from our own planet.
Even NASA’s intense sterilization process may not be enough to ensure this doesn’t happen. According to the article, the very nature of the sterile spacecrafts, and the facilities where they are assembled, ensure that only the strongest bacteria survive. Think of it as Darwin’s Survival of the Fittest. The “fittest” bacteria, such as acinetobacter, bacillus, escherichia, staphylococcus and streptococcus, most able to adapt to the sterilization process, would survive, and could very well invade Mars.
All of this reminded me of my research into asteroid mining a couple months back. I had read about one Discovery News writer’s attendance at a lecture held by Jesuit Brother Guy J. Consolmagno, a U.S. research astronomer and planetary scientist at the Vatican Observatory, who talked about space ethics.
Landing robots to mine on asteroids may be possible in a decade or so. And NASA has recently stated that an actual landing is definitely one of their goals. This is very significant, because a typical asteroid could contain as much as 1 billion metric tons of iron. The value of that? Try trillions and trillions of dollars. Plus, there will be a great deduction of pollution in our own world, if we could halt mining here. So, what’s the dilemma? Where would the human miners go? That’s a lot of people who would lose their jobs to the ultimate outsourcing.
One of our future space goals is to colonize another planet (think Mars). This, of course, would involve terraforming- the process of converting an entire planets’ atmosphere to support human life. This is great when our own planet can’t hold our species anymore either because of overpopulation, or it’s been fatally damaged or altered in some way, but this would also be very deadly for whatever life, or potential for life, would be on the alien planet already.
“Here’s a deeper question,” the Discovery writer quoted Brother Consolmango. “What if there is no life on Mars or Titan or some other place we’re going to go to, but all the ingredients are there, such that at some future time life could exist. The potentiality of life is there and, by terraforming it, we’re aborting that possibility. Under what circumstances is that an ethical thing to do?”
Hawking warned that if Aliens arrived on Earth, we’d be treated as the Native Americans were when America was discovered. Yet, with one little misstep, we could become those very “aliens.”
We mustn’t forget that morals do not get lost in space.