It won’t be a friendly encounter nor a conquest: it will be a gold rush when we meet aliens. Can we be sure it’s ethical?
is a science writer. She is the Latin America correspondent for Science, and her work has additionally appeared in Wired and Slate. She lives in Mexico City.
Aeon for Friends
It wasn’t the Martians’ fault their planet died. If they existed – once – Martians were microbes that are likely residing in a world just like our personal, warmed by an environment and crisscrossed by waterways. But Mars started initially to lose that atmosphere, perhaps because its gravity wasn’t strong adequate to hold onto it after an asteroid impact, or perhaps it had been gradually blown away by solar winds. The cause is still mysterious, but the ending is clear: Mars’s liquid water dried up or froze into ice caps, leaving life without its most precious resource. Any Martians might have been victims of a planet-wide disaster that is natural could neither foresee nor prevent.
A planetary scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, the moral implications are clear: we should help our neighbours for Chris McKay. Earthlings might not have had the oppertunity to intervene when Martians were dying masse that is enwe had been just microbes ourselves), but now, huge amounts of years later, we’re able to make it up to them. We’ve already figured out an effective way to warm up a planet: pump greenhouse gases into its atmosphere. McKay imagines a future that is not-too-distant which we park machinery on Mars that converts carbon and fluorine when you look at the Martian soil into insulating chlorofluorocarbons, and spews them to the planet’s puny atmosphere like a protein shake made to bulk it up. ‘On Earth, we might call it pollution. On Mars, it is called medicine,’ McKay told me in an interview. On his calculation, Mars could be warm adequate to support water and life that is microbial 100 years.
The practice of making a dead world habitable is called terraforming.
In science fiction, Earthlings terraform other planets in order to usually occupy them after trashing Earth. Think about the TV show Firefly (2002), where humans use terraforming technologies to be in the galaxy, pioneer-style. It is not what McKay has in mind. He says, ‘it’s a question of restoration rather than creation’ when it comes to Mars,. It’s a distinction that makes the project not merely possible, but additionally ethical: ‘If there were Martians, and they’re still viable, then within my view the planet is owned by them.’
On the planet, scientists have been able to revive bacteria that has been frozen in ice sheets or entombed in salt crystals for millions of years. So it’s possible that extinct Martians aren’t extinct after all. Warm up Mars, McKay reasons, together with planet that is red just spring back again to life. But that won’t happen without Earth’s intervention. As McKay put it for me: ‘We should say: “We will allow you to. We’ll bring back the water, we’ll allow it to be warm again, and you will flourish.”’
M cKay’s terraforming scenario raises the question of what our moral obligations are to virtually any alien life we may meet. NASA scientists have stated publicly that people are likely to find life elsewhere when you look at the Universe in 10-20 years, if not sooner. The first signs could result from Curiosity, the rover currently combing Mars for organic compounds, or from a mission to Europa, the moon of Jupiter which may host teeming ecosystems with its ice-covered, planet-wide sea. It might equally result from an exoplanet atmosphere, whose spectrum carries a chemical signature (such as for instance abundant oxygen) that could have been created only by life on its surface. Whatever it is, we’re likely to notice it soon.
We’ve rehearsed this moment in popular culture several times over. The way in which we tell it – from Star Trek to Avatar – it is the storyline of a technologically advanced civilisation encountering a less advanced one and bending it to its will; humans can play either role. Such narratives tend to draw on customwriting a history that is grossly simplified a reworking of human-human meetings between Old World and New. Of course, these encounters – plus the conflicts that followed – were much less one-sided as we choose to claim today; just try telling the Spanish conquistador Hernбn Cortйs, gazing at the web of artificial islands that formed the lake city of Tenochtitlбn (now Mexico City), that the Aztecs were technologically unsophisticated. A meeting between civilisations from different planets could be just as nuanced (and messy), and simply as simple for the conquerors (who may not be us) to rewrite after the fact. Historical encounters have numerous lessons to instruct us about how (not) to treat ‘the other’ – on Earth and off. It’s just that, when it comes to the discovery of alien life, that’s not what’s likely to happen.
There are two forms the discovery of alien life could take, neither realistically of these a culture clash between civilisations. The very first is finding a ‘biosignature’ of, say, oxygen, when you look at the atmosphere of an expolanet, produced by life on the exoplanet’s surface. This kind of long-distance discovery of alien life, which astronomers happen to be scanning for, is considered the most likely contact scenario, as it doesn’t require us going anywhere, and on occasion even sending a robot. But its consequences is supposed to be purely theoretical. At long last we’ll know we’re not alone, but that is about it. We won’t be able to establish contact, notably less meet our counterparts – for a really time that is long if ever. We’d reboot scientific, philosophical and religious debates about how we fit into a biologically universe that is rich and complicate our intellectual and moral stances in previously unimaginable ways. But any ethical questions would concern only us and our place when you look at the Universe.
‘first contact’ will not be a back-and-forth between equals, but like the discovery of a resource that is natural
If, on the other hand, we discover microbial or otherwise non-sentient life within our personal solar system – logistics will soon be on our side. We’d manage to visit within a reasonable time frame (as far as space travel goes), and I hope we’d want to. In the event that full life we find resembles plants, their complexity will wow us. Most likely we’ll find simple microbes that are single-celled maybe – maybe – something similar to sponges or tubeworms. With regards to of encounter, we’d be making all of the decisions about how to proceed.
None of this eliminates the possibility that alien life may discover us. But if NASA’s current timeline holds water, another civilisation has only a few more decades to get here before we claim the mantle of ‘discoverer’ rather than ‘discovered’. With every passing day, it grows much more likely that ‘first contact’ will not take the form of an intellectual or moral back-and-forth between equals. It will likely be similar to the discovery of a resource that is natural and another we may have the ability to exploit. It won’t be an encounter, as well as a conquest. It will likely be a rush that is gold.
This will make defining an ethics of contact necessary now, into practice before we have to put it. The aliens we find could stretch our definitions of life towards the limit that is absolute. We won’t see ourselves in them. We’re going to struggle to understand their reality (who in our midst feels true empathy for a tubeworm latched to a rock near a hydrothermal vent in the deep ocean?) On the planet, humans long ago became the worldwide force that decides these strange creatures’ fates, despite the fact that we barely think of them and, most of the time, only recently discovered their existence. Exactly the same will be true for just about any nearby planet. We have been about to export the best and worst regarding the Anthropocene towards the rest of our solar system, so we better determine what our responsibilities will soon be whenever we make it.
P hilosophers and scientists as of this meeting that is year’s of American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), in San Jose, California, were tasked with pondering the societal questions bound up in astrobiology. The topics on the table were as diverse due to the fact emerging field. The astronomer Chris Impey for the University of Arizona discussed the coming boom in commercial space travel, connecting the companies’ missions using the ‘Manifest Destiny’ arguments used by American settlers into the 19th century. Arsev Umur Aydinoglu, a social scientist from the center East Technical University in Turkey, talked about how precisely scientists in an interdisciplinary field such as for instance astrobiology find how to collaborate when you look at the notoriously siloed and bureaucratic behemoth that is NASA. Synthetic biology and intelligence that is artificial up a lot as you are able to parallels for understanding life with an alternate history to ours.