Sunday, June 21, 2015

Invasive Species in Space

Tardigrades or "water bears" can survive the extremes of space
From time to time one will hear of something called “invasive species.” Invasive species are organisms which are introduced to an area where they have no competition and thus begin to roust the native species and wreak havoc with the ecosystem. Such species include numerous noxious weeds, fish such as carp, and animals like pet pythons.

Nearly all of these invasive species were introduced by human interaction. A seed stuck to a boat, a pet released into a swamp, etc. All of these species which began as only one or two loose seeds have become major problems on our planet and within many countries as they can destroy what makes a river, lake, land desirable in a particular area.

It is too late now to point this out as all the harm has been and is being done now. However there is no reason to allow it to continue, at least for some time.

It has been said many times that humans are on the cusp of an exodus to space. The price of launches is expected to decrease dramatically in the coming decades so that a trip into the void could be within the range of vacation expenses. There are also plans to begin colonizing Mars. But will the mistakes of old be overlooked? Will we carry invasive or undesirable species with us as we move into space?

The Curiosity Rover being assembled in a clean room
NASA and other space agencies have long worked to ensure that biocontamination does not occur between its craft and the heavenly bodies they explore. And yet even with all the scrubbing, baking and sanitizing that is performed on craft such as rovers, they have  been found to still harbor microbes which could colonize the Red Planet before humans. If highly polished equipment is still carrying bacteria what is expected to occur when people are throwing suitcases into the cargo hold of a spaceship for a vacation? Mosquitoes might be released into what could have been an Eden.
The private space industry is moving quickly to develop technologies for transportation. But as the transit becomes more viable the industry must remember to perform the annoying housecleaning tasks and consider them before history is simply repeated. Invasive species are a large problem on Earth where they have little competition, but they could be devastating to a space mission if resilient bacteria  were introduced to a colony’s single water supply where there is no competition. Not to mention the potential extraterrestrial conservation issues such an outbreak might incur.

While a cleaning bureaucracy does not need to be created to hinder the industry it is something that should be developed before it is needed. Because when a biological invasion occurs it will appear as gross negligence on the part of the industry. From that will spawn a truly hindering organization.
The industry must work on problems such as invasive species and others which are all preventable. This will show responsibility and due diligence which will give the industry leeway when other unforeseeable problems occur.

As always, this potential cleaning problem opens an opportunity for space entrepreneurs. Currently space rovers are not being cleaned completely. But they are being cleaned as well as they can be. This means that new methods of scrubbing spacecraft need to be developed as well as means of containing microbes and large potential invasive species during manned flights.

Such a business could begin life performing basic cleaning on spacecraft going into orbit. Basically a prepper for low risk launches. Then as more rovers are deployed and more people move into space launch companies could solicit the services of such a company to screen passengers and cargo for potential biohazards and invasive species. Some launch companies may elect to do this themselves but until launch reliability is the same as an airplane launch companies will likely not wish to hold the liability for a potential infestation of a space station. A company dedicated to the screening and cleaning of cargo and people could develop the methods and the technologies to keep invasive and dangerous species out of pure areas.

Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Weeds, reptiles, germs, fish and many other kinds of creatures have repeatedly been carried into areas where they can wreak havoc and destroy something that was devoid of such organisms. In space, humans have a completely clean slate. We can have any kind of flora or fauna we want. But there must be means of keeping what shouldn’t go to space from going to space. A few mosquitoes would completely ruin a trip to a space station.

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