If We Find Habitable Planets, Should We Play God?

Wednesday, 15 November 2017 - 10:39AM
Wednesday, 15 November 2017 - 10:39AM
If We Find Habitable Planets, Should We Play God?
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Image credit: Unsplash
As our view of the universe increases, we're discovering an ever-expanding amount of potentially habitable planets out among the stars.

The problem is, we still haven't found a solid trace of alien life on any of these distant worlds. That seems like a real waste—all these places that could sustain life, but that for whatever reason haven't actually developed anything that even vaguely looks like a living creature.

That being the case, surely nobody will mind if we use a home-grown genetics kit to sprinkle a little life onto these barren planets, right?

Claudius Gros, a researcher from Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany, has a new plan to distribute plant seed across the cosmos: by sending them out into the darkness aboard a spaceship that's equipped with a magnetic sail.

Solar sail technology has been showing up in science fiction for years, but it is actually something that many astronomers consider viable for the future of space travel.

These sails involve using energy from the sun to power a craft, providing a long-term flight solution that can carry a ship across the stars, far further than would be possible with a traditional, finite propulsion method like relying on rocket fuel.

In theory, a solar sail could travel at up to one-fifth of the speed of light, making it a particularly speedy form of travel that could get things to and from our solar system with relative ease.

Instead of relying on a solar sail, Gros proposes using a magnetic alternative that's connected together with superconducting wire, the benefit being that the ship could potentially slow down enough to drop things off on planets during its journey.

Instead of relying on solar power, this ship would be powered by lasers, fired at it from a stationary position on planet Earth.

Gros wants to send what he calls simply "Project Genesis", a gene laboratory that contains a mix of different micro-organisms and genetic material that could potentially kick-start the development of life on faraway worlds. First up would be the TRAPPIST-1B system, which plays host to at least three planets that could potentially sustain life—even if it would take around 12,000 years for the ship to reach its destination.

Essentially, Gros wants to fire a bunch of genetic goo into space with a giant laser, in order to spread life across the stars. The creatures that would grow from this wouldn't look anything like life on this planet, but it would mean that, in a lonely galaxy, we'd be able to count on life continuing somewhere out in the universe when our own planet's ecosystem eventually wears out. It's not entirely unlike the plot of Interstellar, albeit without all the time travel nonsense.

According to Gros himself:

Opening quote
"These kind of projects are useless for humanity, but life is something valuable and should have the possibility to develop on other planets. Our galaxy may contain billions of sterile but habitable worlds."
Closing quote

Unorthodox (and unlikely) as this project may sound, it does raise some ethical questions. Is it appropriate and responsible for us to start showing up in other parts of the galaxy to spread our genetic information?

In theory, if there really isn't any other life anywhere in our near vicinity, we shouldn't be bothering anyone too much. If this genetic goo ends up in the wrong place, though, we could end up dramatically damaging a local ecosystem with our gunk. The Prime Directive of Star Trek may not be legally binding for NASA, but that doesn't mean we should overlook the potential harm we could cause to the universe as a whole.

At the same time, the fact that we haven't spotted other alien life already has many scientists concerned. It could be that the very specific set of circumstances that created life on our planet may be so phenomenally rare that it genuinely might not be likely to happen again at any other spot in the galaxy, and if that's the case, then when life dies out on our home rock, that's the end of this bizarre phenomenon altogether.

Humans have always historically been keen to ensure our own species' survival, and if we take things in broad strokes, making sure that something—anything—resembling life on Earth outlives our own planet may be something that humans will get more invested at some point in the future.

That being the case, we're unlikely to all agree on a consensus about impregnating alien worlds until our own planet looks a little more doomed; at which point we're probably more likely to have more effective technology that doesn't require anyone to shine a laser on the side of a spaceship to make it happen.

Enthusiastic as Claudius Gros may be, it's worth assuming that nobody in a position of scientific power will approve an intergalactic artificial insemination mission any time in the near future.
If We Find Habitable Planets, Should We Play God?