Flying too close to the sun

Proceeding into space with caution will mitigate potential harms

by Emma Gao, Co-News Editor

The first images taken by the James Webb Telescope have recently returned to Earth on July 12 and quickly spread among an eager public. But before we let those swirling galaxies hypnotize us and those sparkling colors dazzle our eyes, we should first acknowledge the dangers of space exploration in order to protect against possible hazards.

With venturing into unknown territory comes the risk of polluting extraterrestrial ecosystems, and of accidentally carrying harmful substances back to Earth. The first scenario falls under forward contamination, or bringing microbes from Earth into space, and the latter constitutes backward contamination.

A report published by NASA in 2015 identified 25 knowledge gaps, or unanswered questions, regarding the handling and decontamination of samples retrieved from space. Scientists have not yet detected signs of extraterrestrial life, but as missions bring back more and more material taken from Mars, comets and asteroids, we should process these substances carefully to protect Earth from potentially hostile microbial life or foreign toxins.

Before we let those swirling galaxies hypnotize us, we should also acknowledge the dangers of space exploration in order to protect against possible hazards”

On the flip side, what about the effect human actions may have on extraterrestrial life? The growth of private space flight brings the issue of regulating these missions so that they follow planetary protection (PP) procedures. For example, when tech entrepreneur and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk launched a Tesla roadster into space four years ago, scientists worried that the unsterilized car could potentially hit Mars in the distant future, contaminating it with bacteria from Earth and disrupting the planet’s ecosystem.

The question of overseeing the private sector increases in urgency as companies can more easily manufacture and launch small spacecraft; in line with this trend, Musk has stated a goal of sending people to Mars by 2024. While NASA conducts thorough sterilization of its spacecraft and has extensive knowledge on PP procedures, it does not have regulatory power to control licenses for commercial spaceflight and ensure that proper safety guidelines are being followed elsewhere.

In further considering the impact humans might have on extraterrestrial biospheres, we can also turn our attention towards Earth. We do not have a stellar record when it comes to preserving ecosystems and biodiversity, even on our own planet. According to a 2019 IPBES report, almost one million plant and animal species face the threat of extinction as a result of human activity such as logging, poaching and mining. While this by no means guarantees that we will affect space in the same manner, it reminds us that our desire for growth and progress can at times compromise our considerations for the life around us, a mistake we should not repeat when extending our presence to new worlds.

Space exploration can bring benefits such as new technology and a better understanding of the universe, but we should not let our excitement, or arrogance, blind us to the harm we could impose. If we conduct our exploration through an ethical lens and with a humble outlook, we can ensure that the benefits we gain truly advance humanity forward by promoting a respect and appreciation for our place in the universe.