Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Danger of E.T. to the Private Space Industry

Aliens are bad for business.

No, I don't mean that there will be little green men working to destroy us commercially. In fact, I mean something as basic as a single celled organism could bring the current space industry and prospects of settlement to a halt.

Let me paint a picture for you.

The single largest discovery that could both spark great interest in space but also bring colonization to a standstill would be the discovery of extraterrestrial life in our solar system. Or even the remains of such life.

This is where space colonization differs completely from all historical explorers. In the past, as colonists and explorers spread across the New World they contaminated it with their diseases and, in some ways, their cultures. It is known that the Americas were once home to millions that were never observed because they were destroyed by European plagues. The potential discoveries were destroyed before they could be discovered. This is what is feared may happen in space by space environmentalists.

Mars and Europa are among the primary targets for space life hunters. They both are expected to have significant enough amounts of water and friendly enough environments to have once or still harbor life. The problem is that these characteristics are also what make those locations prime colonization prospects. But what would happen if either fossils or living samples of life existed on one of those bodies. In our environmentally conscious world, they would be cordoned off as preserves. The E.T.’s would have to be kept separate from all other biological life so that it could not be contaminated by Earth life. This would require that no colony could exist any where near the discovery.
So if life were to be discovered on Mars it could stop all Mars exploration for close to fifty years. Because instead of sending missions to colonize and  then study, missions would be sent to study and then possibly colonize.  The danger of destroying or contaminating either the E.T. or ourselves would entice Earth governments to stop human transport.

Now, what is truly disturbing about this condition is that an E.T. could be discovered that originated on Earth. Right now there are numerous rovers on Mars. And even though they have been cooked and sterilized they still could have carried to the planet microbes that could survive if they were exposed to the right conditions. Now suppose that another rover came along behind one of those dirty rovers. And low and behold that rover finds microbial life  that the other rover "missed." But the new rover can not recognize it as an earth-based contamination. At this point, having found E.T. on Mars, the planet is locked down and only particular scientific missions are arranged. After about ten years a sample of the organism is brought back to Earth by robotic rover. By that point the microbes may have evolved enough to adapt to the Martian environment. While they will still appear similar to Earth bacteria, it will continually be questioned whether they could just have been seeded by an earth rock on Mars or vice-versa. And there would be no way to prove that the rover planted it. Because by that time, the bacteria could have spread across all of Mars.

Now Mars has life, of sorts, and the decision has to be made if we will allow Humans to colonize/continue to colonize the planet, and introduce all kinds of new biological systems, or simply keep it as a preserve in honor of the first place outside of Earth to contain life.

So basically, we may create the E.T. by delivering infested spacecraft, but then decide that it was indigenous to the planet and attempt to protect it by stopping future exploration. Not an ideal future for a new and growing industry.

While this scenario is fictional, it is still something that is incredibly possible. 

At the current rate of planetary bio-research it appears that many Mars launches and colonies will be established before any type of life is discovered, if ever. So, if perchance, the organism is legitimately alien, a human colony will most likely have to be one of the means of studying it. So instead of stopping colonization such discoveries may simply limit ideas of terraforming or expansion of colonies. It will really come down to a question of how much of the planet should be preserved or if it is even possible to. More or less it will be a system just like that of the United States with its parks and preserves.

As the industry grows detection and preservation of possible E.T. locations will have to be consciously considered. Something that was lacking in much past exploration of our globe. But all preservation will need to be conducted in a way that is beneficial it the people that are risking their lives and fortunes to open the gates of space. Preservation on Earth has led to the devastation of several industries where the protection was taken too far.

Now the fear of certain parts of space being restricted due to biological contaminations may not be an issue at all for several decades. Since many governments today are relatively Earth-bound there is no means for them to prohibit colonization except to prohibit Mars-bound launches. And if one country grounds launches to Mars another may not. So policing of bio-contamination would have to be a uni-world decision. Something that is unprecedented.

There is also the question of when a life form no longer becomes "from Earth." In the case of a false positive mentioned earlier, organisms that live on Mars for any period of time will evolve to match that environment. There will come a time when new species will have to classified that only exist on certain planets. New rules will have to be created to determine when a species that originated on Earth but now can only live on Mars requires special attention or protection.

Overall, the the possibility of bio-contamination is is much more of a legal hypothetical than a business opportunity, except that is for the burgeoning space-lawyer and legislator.

To see more visit this NASA page for the Office of Planetary Protection. It discusses means the organization uses to prevent forward contamination of planets with earth organisms.

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