We need to talk about Planetary Protection
And put Humanity First
Is it a worthwhile endeavour for Humans to ensure that the solar system is preserved in its “natural state” at all costs, if doing so makes Humanity’s extinction more likely? This is effectively what the very influential group of scientists and space lawyers, who I shall term the Protectionists, are arguing for. It is why we need to talk about planetary protection.
We’re approaching a crucial moment in our species’ future. Soon it will become possible for the first time for Humans to live permanently away from our homeworld. Some could be born and live out their entire lives never setting foot on Earth. As Russian rocket pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky put it, “Earth is the cradle of Humanity, but one cannot remain in the cradle forever”.
For many of us this could hardly be a more important time. However, there is a problem. It comes from the Outer Space Treaty and how some would want it to be interpreted. The Protectionists are busy creating an environment in which Human (and even robotic) exploration of the solar system should be prevented at all costs and, if it has to be allowed, must only be done so under duress and the most stringent of constraints.
For example, if Humans are to set foot on Mars it should only be in a manner similar to that of an Antarctic scientific base, with a tiny grouping of elite government scientists and astronauts permitted to be temporarily there. If the Protectionists have their way, space exploration will only ever be for the privileged few.
The original 1967 Outer Space Treaty (the first of five proposed treaties, this one ratified by 106 nations) was developed with the best of intentions, notably to prevent the militarization of space including nuclear weapons. Article IX contains the text:
“States Parties to the Treaty shall pursue studies of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, and conduct exploration of them so as to avoid their harmful contamination and also adverse changes in the environment of the earth resulting from the introduction of extraterrestrial matter and, where necessary, shall adopt appropriate measures for this purpose.”
If you’re reading this you’ll likely know there’s a big robotic Rover called Curiosity exploring Mars’ Gale Crater at the moment. You may even know it’s suspected there’s sometimes liquid water on the Martian surface, to go with vast quantities at the poles and beneath the surface. What you’re unlikely to know is that there is evidence of liquid water within just a few meters of Curiosity, but the rover is not allowed to investigate in case it contaminates it. This was the ruling of the Office of Planetary Protection which requires the Curiosity team to assess the way forward every day, in case there’s potential water the rover must avoid, as described in Wired.
What madness to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on an out-of-this-world science experiment, only to shy away from doing important science. Apparently because of the “harmful contamination” of Article IX.
Why does this matter? It was Larry Niven who pointed out that “the dinosaurs became extinct because they didn’t have a space program”. If Humans remain on our island Earth it is inevitable that something will catch up with us. A glance through the fossil record shows that every species which dominated Earth before us is now extinct.
Long before our Sun exhausts its fuel our nearest star will have warmed to the extent our oceans will have evaporated. Before then another large asteroid might impact us, or a supervolcano devastate Earth’s crust, or a gamma ray burst from an unfortunately aligned supernova zap our atmosphere. The coronavirus (COVID-19) is a timely reminder of the fear authorities have that a pandemic will spread quickly across the world, despite out best efforts.
Now, though, there is something else. I’ve been working with Toby Ord at the University of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute on a new book called The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity. Ord demonstrates that we have entered a far more dangerous time than previously when the risk of Human extinction came only from natural phenomena. We are walking a new Precipice because we have created the means for our own destruction. The stakes are very high.
Currently we have all our eggs in one basket. By learning to live in sustainable colonies throughout (and eventually beyond) the solar system, this risk will be much reduced. Niven went on to say “if we become extinct because we don’t have a space program, it will serve us right”.
The Protectionists resist this, but what are they actually afraid of? Looking for now at just the case of Mars, they argue that it would be wrong for Humans to “contaminate” Mars until “all the science is done”. As the science can ever be finished. And as if really worthwhile science can be done without humans. One of the key questions it’s claimed we need a definitive answer to is whether or not life has arisen on the red planet. I agree this question is important for both the future of science and the future of Humanity. There are only five scenarios:
1. Life has never existed on Mars.
2. Simple/Microbial life existed on (or inside) Mars but is now extinct.
3. Complex life existed on (or inside) Mars but is now extinct.
4. Simple/Microbial life exists on (or inside) Mars today.
5. Complex life exists on (or inside) Mars today.
Let’s examine each in turn.
If (1) is the case Humans will cause no harmful contamination by going to Mars because there is nothing to harm. The clear goal should be to terraform Mars to enable Humans to live as securely as possible.
If either (2) or (3) are the case then sending Humans to Mars will lead to incredible opportunities for science. This life will have left traces — fossils and more. How similar was it to life on Earth? Might it be the product of the same or a different biogenesis? Only by sending Humans will we find out.
If (4) is the case then the question is “how would we know?” Sending rovers to the red planet has been problematic, even back to the days of the original Viking landers in the 1970s. In its quest to detect Martian life, there was always the issue of whether what may or may not be found was the result of contamination from the landers themselves. This is the reason Curiosity is steered clear of sites where life may exist. If we find life so alien it’s clearly alien, then we will know the answer to the question. If we find simple/microbial life similar to that on Earth, then the only way to be sure it arose on Mars is through option (2) above. Not what’s there now but by finding the historical evidence.
If (5) is the case then that’s more straightforwardto determine. It’s also highly unlikely, we believe impossible on the surface. We do have evidence of subsurface lakes beneath Mars and perhaps there will be complex life there, but a Human presence is the only way to find out for sure, should we want to do that. And such a presence can be isolated from subMartian systems.
Arthur C. Clarke said, “Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are completely terrifying.” That this remains an open question is a compelling reason why establishing a Human bridgehead elsewhere on the solar system is necessary. As far as we know we are the only example of complex intelligence in the Universe, so our survival can for the time being be equated with the survival of intelligence itself.
As we examine the entire observable Universe everything we see can be explained by dead processes. Preserving Human intelligence is the most important thing. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be good stewards of the solar system — of course we should. But the Protectionists should meet us halfway and shift their priorities to supporting Human survival and flourishing.
If the solar system is devoid of life beyond our Island Earth then we should ask the Protectionists why place outer space into some kind of permanent stasis if it is barren? There is zero point from Humanity’s perspective if we become extinct leaving the Universe devoid of intelligence, and we have to be unashamedly species-ist here. This is not a selfish perspective. Should we succeed in becoming multiplanetary then there will be trillions of worthwhile future Human lives with the potential for good. What a gift we can bequeath future generations. As Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom reminds us, every moment we delay a sustainable spacefaring future in his paper “Astronomical Waste: The Opportunity Cost of Delayed Technological Development”. https://nickbostrom.com/astronomical/waste.html
What of the converse? I am not aware of any credible scientist who proposes complex life currently exists on Mars. What we are really talking about is Martian microbes. If these exist or once it at least suggests simple life might be commonplace. And if it is common, there must be a sense in which its value is diluted. Should we really elevate the task of not contaminating hypothetical Martian microbes above the preservation of complex intelligence in the Universe? And with it the future good that can be achieved?
The arrow of contamination can, though, travel both ways. The Outer Space Treaty also mentions contamination of Earth and it is argued by some that this is a significant risk with Martian material. Yet this ignores the current and past material that is continually exchanged between our planets. Impacts on Mars eject material beyond escape velocity so Martian rocks become meteors and sometimes land on Earth as meteorites. Of course transit can go the other way but is more difficult.
In 2000. Benjamin Weiss and Joseph Kirschvink showed that the “data support the hypothesis that meteorites could transfer life between planets in the solar system”. The pair state that “There is no evidence that life-forms from Mars have reached Earth, but if there were microorganisms on Mars, then it is probable that they would have made it here.”
Given this and that there are already 50,000 meteorites on Earth already should we care about bringing more Mars rock back home? We know of over a hundred Martian meteorites on Earth already and of course there will be thousands more. The risk of some red plague is surely less than that from archaeological or palaeontological excavation? Or perhaps digging up the Spanish flu in your garden if you go down about a foot beneath the top soil.
When conceived the Outer Space Treaty served the cause of mitigating existential risk by banning space-based nuclear weapons. It served its purpose. Those who remain in thrall to the Treaty must be taken back to its origins. If your key priority is to ignore preserve other worlds at the expense of Humanity, then you do not do good service to your fellow Humans and, most importantly, the trillions who will not have the chance to come after you. To lessen today’s high risk of Human extinction we must again legislate to put our security as a species first.