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Destroying Worlds: Space Exploration’s Potentially Devastating Path

November 2, 2016

suni_williams_aboard_the_iss

Astronaut Sunita L. Williams, Expedition 14 flight engineer, works with the Lab-on-a-Chip Application Development-Portable Test System (LOCAD-PTS), a handheld device for rapid detection of biological and chemical substances on board the station. By NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

By Emily Matthews, Teen Newsroom producer, and currently a senior at homeschool.

As we delve deeper and deeper into the abyss of space, we learn ever more about the universe that surrounds us. Many of us hope to find proof of life, some signal that we aren’t alone, but this quest may not be morally sound. While our conquests of planets may seem harmless, by visiting other worlds, we leave something potentially apocalyptic behind: microbes.

“If you knew [visiting] would wipe out [all life on] a planet, would you still go?” poses Dr. Rachel Smith, Head of the Astronomy and Astrophysics Research Lab at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences.

If we ever find extraterrestrial life, there’s a chance it will meet its end at the hands of humanity.  Our presence will introduce Earthly microbes that may be capable of wreaking havoc on a foreign ecosystem. No matter how hard we try, it’s impossible to completely sterilize everything; our microbes are quite adaptable, able to survive dormant in extremely inhospitable conditions. Inevitably, some will survive both decontamination and the journey through space.

In fact, they already have.

According to NASA’s Planetary Protection Officer Catharine Conley, approximately 30,000 bacterial endospores stole away on the Curiosity rover during its trip to Mars. At the time, this level wasn’t a problem for the Committee on Space Research, the international regulator of space exploration, as Mars was thought to be a barren, dry wasteland. But, as we learned more about the planet, we began to discover that this wasn’t the case. Since the discovery of water, fear of contamination has increased to the point where debate has sparked over the ethics of allowing the rover anywhere near the liquid.

But anytime we enter space, we risk injecting Earthly life into the universe. Only one way exists to completely erase the possibility of contaminating another planet: the termination of space exploration.

This option is obviously less than ideal. Yet, do we owe it to the universe to leave other planets be, to let them flourish and grow without the interference of humanity?

It’s an ethical quandary, and as Dr. Smith admits, “There’s no right answer.” Some believe it’s our right to explore and that any havoc we wreak is justified, but it’s not that simple. The life we find most likely won’t be a sentient creature; instead, microbes may be all we encounter. While they may be minuscule and seemingly insignificant, their potential isn’t. Dr. Smith points out that these microbes have the possibility to evolve into a future species that we do deem worthy of our concern.

But whether or not we believe in an ethical obligation to protect alien life from ourselves, eventually, those morals will not be enough. “We’re naturally curious. We’re explorers,” explains Dr. Smith. According to her, we will still eventually explore and contaminate space no matter the cost.

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