One day, presuming we can overcome our principal flaws and the current limitations of physics, we will travel to distant stars. Serious exploration of our region of the galaxy will become the ultimate frontier. Dim as that prospect seems today, I believe it will come. In my youth, much of what is today’s reality was fanciful science fiction and wishful thinking. We learned life wasn’t possible anywhere else in our solar system, and there were no planets around distant stars. We thought ourselves special and unique. We believed we were the center of the Universe.
Much has changed in the past 50 years. Our exploration of our solar system has greatly expanded our knowledge of the local environment and about the possibilities for finding other forms of life. Although nothing has been found as yet, we know the possibilities are much greater than what I learned in school in the 1950s and 60s. Overcoming our technological limitations may seem impossible or insurmountable, but we are a highly adaptive, ingenious, and clever species. So long as we don’t self-destruct, one day we will embark upon the greatest adventure imaginable: the exploration of the Universe beyond our solar system.
However, long before that day arrives we must become thoroughly familiar with everything in our own backyard and decide based on the wisdom we acquire in those endeavors the steps we need to take to become an interstellar species. It will be a long painful process. Learning what we must and must not do, what we can and can’t do, and then impose necessary limits on ourselves so when we finally do encounter alien life in any form we will have a plan. What will our rules of engagement be? Do we have the right to interfere, alter or otherwise harm any life we find? What if the world we find is inhabited, but coveted by us for our own purposes?
In the popular science fiction series Star Trek, the Prime Directive is the guiding principle of the United Federation of Planets. This directive states Starfleet is prohibited from interfering with the internal development of any aliens they encounter. Its intent is to prevent interference with less developed civilizations to avoid the inevitable disaster such interference would cause. In this, they merely recognize our own experience on planet Earth when more highly developed cultures encountered primitive human societies throughout our long blemished and checkered history. Such contacts inevitably resulted in the destruction of the lesser-developed culture coupled with environmental degradation by the more developed one, regardless of their intentions.
However, before we leave this world we have important lessons to learn. There is a test of sorts I suspect all civilizations reaching our level of development must pass. Call it a filter. This prospect was first raised by Enrico Fermi, creator of the first nuclear reactor, suggesting there may be ‘filters’ an advanced civilization might have to pass to become spacefaring. These filters could take many forms and conceivably are both environmental and developmental in nature. A short list might include: acquiring nuclear weapons and their capability of obliterating life, overpopulation, environmental degradation causing climate change, and overcoming our tribal nature to redefine the meaning of our tribe to include all life. I’m sure there are others.
A basic prerequisite for becoming a spacefaring civilization logically would be learning to live within the sustainable limits on our home world, the Earth. We will, in this century pass this test, make it through this filter, or perish. It may sound harsh and extreme, but it is our reality. All we need do is look at what we are doing to our planet at this minute. We first have to create a demonstrably sustainable human civilization on Earth by overcoming all the above problems. The knowledge we acquire and lessons learned in accomplishing these tasks will open the doors necessary for us to succeed in the next phase. Think of it being like the transformation of the caterpillar into the butterfly. Its struggle in exiting the chrysalis is vital and necessary to the success and survival of the emerging butterfly.
The second phase will be our taking the body of knowledge, skills, and abilities we acquire and apply them to the building of viable mesocosms in space. What is mesocosm? Simply put, a mesocosm is recreating the earth’s biological system in miniature. We may start with a station parked somewhere high above the Earth or near the moon. We can build on our success by building new bases on the moon taking advantage of its extensive system of caves created in the early phase of the moon’s development when there was extensive volcanism. From there we can move on to similar bases on Mars as we begin terraforming it, and, perhaps most importantly, build cloud cities on Venus as visualized by NASA. Once we learn how to live, work, and thrive in these three diverse environments the doors to the future are wide open.
At this moment, in 2019, man has been able to ascertain and ascertain and identify the existence of thousands of exoplanets orbiting distant stars. These planets come in all sizes and are rewriting our understanding of star and planet formation. We are looking for a second earth and have found several possibilities, and more continue to be found. The discovery of the earth’s definitive twin remains elusive for the moment.
Chances are once we learn to sharpen our skills with new and improved tools; we will see many more that have been hiding in the shadows. These new tools are being developed. Recently a new way to identify magnetic fields has been discovered that expands the number of known planets possibly capable of harboring life.
While we imagine finding a second earth rich with life and covered with water, caution is in order. We have to remember any planet we go to in another star system will present us the utmost challenges. We must be able to determine whether or not there is life there before we go. The answer to that question tells us what the constraints are for us in visiting that world.
It is conceivable we could find alien life in some form on Mars or one or more of the moons in the outer solar system. We have ample proof several moons around Jupiter and Saturn have liquid oceans in their interiors. Pluto, the dwarf planet, was recently found to have an ocean hiding under its frozen surface.
How would discovering life of some kind hiding in the dark on one or more of these worlds alter our approach? What should our rules of engagement be? Do we have the right to interfere, alter, or otherwise harm ANY life we find, even if that world is desired by us for our own uses?
Presuming we can find ways of overcoming the cosmic speed limit, what do we do if we find a promising planet with alien life within a dozen light-years or so? How do we behave? What are the ethical constraints and limits we must observe? Or are we morally and ethically free to do as we wish?
Discovery of an exoplanet in our immediate neighborhood comes with a double edge. If we find a planet we are relatively certain harbors life, wouldn’t we be faced with a number of complications and contradictions? We focus on the thrill of finding other Earth-like worlds, but we never acknowledge or talk about the fact such a world may present a bigger problem than one with possibilities but barren of life, or at least higher forms of life. Contradictory as it sounds, discovery only complicates what happens in the future. Why? First of all, we have to recognize the most basic and essential reality. We don’t just live on earth; we are the earth. We are related to and part of every single living system on this planet. Wherever we go we must take earth with us. What that means in practical terms is that if we find a planet with promising features there are constraints on our actions. What do we do if we find a world with more advanced forms of alien life? The reality is that if we find such a planet, and we most likely will eventually, what do we do? How do we behave? What are the ethical constraints and limits? We must begin answering these questions now.
With those issues in mind, I asked University of Arizona Astronomer and professor Chris Impey a number of questions concerning our leaving earth, encountering life, and our response to that possibility. Impey is the author of several books touching on these issues including Beyond: Our Future in Space and Encountering Life in the Universe. He not only authored books about these issues but also has been deeply involved with groups who meet to discuss and study them.
Impey acknowledged the idea of the “Great Filter” was, in consideration of the issues we face, a distinct and serious possibility. Concerning respect for all life, he noted microbial life under the Martian surface and on several moons in the outer solar system was possible, but we probably would feel no moral obligation toward microbes. This response is important in understanding where we might set the limits for our intervention on other worlds. The possibility of encountering microbial life in our own solar system would serve as a crucial learning experience for our species on how to deal with such matters going forward. What we learn in our own solar system would prove invaluable when we eventually visit worlds around other suns.
Impey replied, based on surveys completed by the Kepler telescope thus far, the odds of finding a habitable terrestrial planet within 20 light years of the earth are good. He indicated NASA has already initiated a policy of not contaminating or interfering with any life forms it might find on other worlds. At least the U.S. is operating within a moral framework of non-intervention. We hope our example will serve as the basis for a policy others will follow. Finally, in regard to finding life elsewhere, he said, “Yes, if life elsewhere has a different biological basis, it might be toxic or dangerous to our form of biology, and difficult to anticipate what exact form it might take. All the planning I’ve seen suggests a very cautious approach.” At this point, this is probably the best we can hope. Impey ended by acknowledging these questions are to the point and that the astrobiology community is taking them seriously.
His responses suggest current thinking among people like Impey who are looking into our future, discussing, raising questions, and thinking about issues related to our species becoming spacefaring are on the right path.
On the other hand, it isn’t hard to see, reflecting on man’s history, that we might see any kind of life standing in the way of our plans or desires as an obstacle to be removed. History suggests the only life we are willing to consider important or worthy of serious thought and consideration is our own. It often seems everything else is expendable so the work of Impey and others in the astrobiology community and elsewhere is vital to our reigning in our baser instincts.
Evolution hardwired some things into our DNA that once served as an advantage that made our dominance of earth possible but is now the opposite. We have the knowledge and wisdom to overcome those things, but it won’t be easy. The work being done to addresses these issues today could make the difference in whether we are successful or fail to get through the “Great Filter”.
It is unrealistic to think we can find a planet with alien life and simply move in. Probabilities are, everything on such a world will be toxic to us, the biology will be quite different. There undoubtedly will be a great temptation to change it and to accomplish that would endeavor to kill and destroy all the life on that world and replacing it with our own. Think of chemotherapy or doing a bone marrow transplant. Does this concept have a familiar ring? How many science fiction stories and movies have used that very premise to portray an alien menace trying to either alter earth for their purposes (War of the Worlds) or simply wanting to strip the planet of all its useful materials and resources for their own needs (Independence Day, Oblivion, Avatar)?
Morally and ethically we should find this kind of behavior unacceptable. Is not life sacred and deserving of its own existence and having the opportunity to develop and evolve, as it will? If we wish to spread our kinds of life across the Universe aren’t we really looking for potentially habitable worlds currently missing a few key qualities? Many such worlds may be inhabited with simple life forms. In this instance, we would bring all our acquired knowledge, skills, abilities and tempered by the wisdom we’ve acquired learning how to live sustainably on earth, to transform or terraform the new world using local resources and whatever power was brought from home.
Terraforming will be a slow process that will take centuries so there has to be a plan for what we will do and how we are to survive in the interim as we re-engineer the atmosphere and introduce earth’s entire ecosystem, so it becomes like earth and compatible with our existence and survival.
Even though we are probably centuries from reaching this threshold for entering deep space and spreading to other worlds, we need to begin thinking about and setting the rules that monitor, limit and control our behavior NOW.
Unless these steps are taken, humans cannot successfully travel to and inhabit other star systems. The preparation itself is a multi-century project and one that relies crucially on its first step succeeding, which is the creation of a sustainable long-term civilization on Earth. This is the vital test of any species seeking to become a spacefaring civilization. Its lessons are basic and vital to being able to live on other worlds and overcoming hostile environments. Learning to live within sustainable limits respecting the biosphere that makes our life possible and altering our behavior to celebrate and enhance its growth and health are like learning to talk and walk all over again. This achievement is necessary, although not sufficient, a precondition for any success in interstellar voyaging. If we don’t create sustainability on our own world the consequences are clear and catastrophic, there is no Planet B.