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The final frontier: reaching for the stars

And making a mess along the way.

It’s August, and we’re in deep summer. Alongside the crackle of barbeques and wildfires, we can look to the sky and watch the Perseid meteor shower burn its way through our atmosphere. This is an annual event, taking place as our planet flies through the trail of debris left behind by Comet Swift-Tuttle – which we only see itself once every 130 years or so (next flyby is 2126 if you’re waiting).

Phenomena like the Perseid shower drag our gaze away from Instagram, reminding us of the beauty of the cosmos. But our relationship with the realm above is changing: soon, space will be offering astronomical wealth; not just some fantastic stuff to photograph and measure. The growing rush spearheaded by the likes of SpaceX and Blue Origin means that over the next decades we will see sci-fi come to life, from space tourism to colonies on the Moon and Mars.

Houston, space waste

Houston, we have a trash problem. (Credit: Plan A)

Expanding our reach into space brings along a host of questions – the answers to which will decide whether this relationship is one of dominance and destruction, or harmony and sustainability. There is a huge amount to discover, and a lot of money to be made by those able to grasp it. So what are the problems? They are, of course, potentially infinite – so here we will turn attention to two of them: one that is very much right here, right now, and another that is on the horizon.

A waste management nightmare

Closest to home: space junk. Yes, we now have a waste management problem in Earth’s orbit. On top of being just obviously a bad thing, this debris is dangerous. The first serious smash was in 2009 when US satellite Iridium 33 collided (at 42,000kmph, no less) with the out-of-service Russian Cosmos 2251. This was a big hit: both were totally destroyed and released thousands of pieces of junk into the space around Earth.

Since 2016, there have been five major satellite collisions, each spewing huge amounts of debris, small and large, into circulation around our planet (the ultimate e-waste?). There are now an estimated 128 million pieces of debris smaller than 1cm. Whilst small, the huge speeds at which these little bits travel means they are more than capable of causing serious damage to more satellites and spacecraft – resulting in more debris and a potential runaway effect called the Kessler Syndrome. Worst case scenario, our orbit becomes effectively clogged with an impenetrable layer of junk, and we have a very tricky waste management problem to get our heads around.

Over the last few years, regulatory authorities have approved, for a number of companies, the deployment of mega-constellations of broadband internet satellites. Elon Musk’s Starlink project (part of SpaceX) plans to deploy 12,000 satellites by the mid-2020s. With the first 60 now launched, many have raised concerns about the potential impact of this endeavour on the Earth orbital environment. The astronomical community have also criticised Starlink for having the potential to ruin our night sky; a satellite constellation of this size could outnumber visible stars, and be bright enough to impact scientific observations (in radio as well as optical wavelengths). Today there are over 5,000 satellites in orbit; it’s already getting crowded. But what about our impacts further afield?

Towards a cosmocentric ethic

It isn’t just Earth’s orbit that is the target of human development. The talk at the moment is getting human feet on Mars – and deciding what to do there. The grand long term goals (after getting there and setting up some sort of permanent base) involve a human society on Mars, self-sustaining and with a permanent population. A big part of achieving this could be terraforming: the process of altering a planet’s atmosphere, topography and ecology to make it more Earth-like and human-friendly. It’s a pretty cool idea, but what do we think about it ethical and moral terms?

Here on Earth, we are striving (well, some of us) to conserve nature, to protect our fragile planet from the ravages of unchecked human activity. Whilst we are a while away from potentially doing it, the ethics of terraforming is an interesting philosophical debate. We know that life on Earth will come to an end: eventually, our Sun will die and that will be the end of us if we haven’t destroyed ourselves before then (there is plenty of time for us to do so – about 7.5 billion years).

For this reason, do we not have a moral obligation to colonise other planets and make them habitable for humans, for the survival of our species? Further, if we hold life (of all sorts) in such high esteem, isn’t creating the conditions for an increasing quantity of life a moral endeavour, whatever the planet?

Terraforming Mars

An old dream of humanity. But does it make sense? (Credit: Plan A)

Those opposed to terraforming make arguments that most of us will be familiar with in terms of our relationship to other life on Earth. These are based predominantly around the concept that there is an inherent value in the pristine nature of untouched existence – whether it is just a landscape, low-level microbial life, or something more complex. For hardline ecocentrists, any human activity on Mars is morally questionable: whatever exists on Mars (perhaps some microbial life) has the right to pass time and evolve free from any interference.

On the whole, humans are very happy to significantly impact life around us. We have done a fantastic job of warming our planet up, and a glance at the chihuahua over the road or the enormous apple on your desk will show you the control we have over other species.

Until very recently, many actors on Earth (whether individuals, businesses or politicians) have seen the Earth as an infinite playground for our apparent ‘progress’, the sandbox in which our pathological addiction to exponential growth can thrive. Is space the latest opportunity for conquer and exploitation?  

Perhaps, our turn to the stars will force us to re-engage with the discipline of environmental ethics, to ask ourselves what kind of relationship we feel we should have with nature and other species. Maybe a Mars (or wherever else) colony is the perfect opportunity to put our moral convictions to the test, after making a pretty big mess on Earth. First, though, we have to decide what these are.

What we need is a cosmocentric ethic: an ethic that measures the value of extraterrestrial life (what is this?) with the values of humanity (what are they, really?) and all things in the universe – a grand unifying theory (of sorts) for our relationship with space.

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