“It Won’t Be An Encounter, Or Even A Conquest. It Will Be A Gold Rush.”

Private enterprise endeavoring to start a new Space Race isn’t merely about cashing in–it’s also about the survival of a variant of our species–but the rich asteroid belt near Mars has certainly caught the attention of billionaire explorers. We want to mine up there to build new colonies but perhaps they’ll be a little something left over so that our first trillionaire can be minted. It would be the least pleasing result of space exploration, but it’s undoubtedly a driving force.

Sometimes during a gold rush people lose their manners. It’s important then to begin thinking now about how we’ll treat our hosts, whether they be microbial or what have you. At Aeon, Lizzie Wade has written a smart essay about what could become a next-level land grab–Manifest Destiny meeting Space Odyssey. She suggests that perhaps the Antarctic Treaty System could be used as a template for curbing our worst impulses. An excerpt:

There are two forms the discovery of alien life could realistically take, neither of them a culture clash between civilisations. The first is finding a ‘biosignature’ of, say, oxygen, in the atmosphere of an expolanet, created by life on the exoplanet’s surface. This kind of long-distance discovery of alien life, which astronomers are already scanning for, is the most likely contact scenario, since it doesn’t require us going anywhere, or even sending a robot. But its consequences will be purely theoretical. At long last we’ll know we’re not alone, but that’s about it. We won’t be able to establish contact, much less meet our counterparts – for a very long time, if ever. We’d reboot scientific, philosophical and religious debates about how we fit into a biologically rich universe, and complicate our intellectual and moral stances in previously unimaginable ways. But any ethical questions would concern only us and our place in the Universe.

‘First contact’ will not be a back-and-forth between equals, but like the discovery of a natural resource
If, on the other hand, we discover microbial or otherwise non-sentient life within our own solar system – logistics will be on our side. We’d be able to visit within a reasonable period of time (as far as space travel goes), and I hope we’d want to. If the life we find resembles plants, their complexity will wow us. Most likely we’ll find simple single-celled microbes or maybe – maybe – something like sponges or tubeworms. In terms of encounter, we’d be making all the decisions about how to proceed.

None of this eliminates the possibility that alien life might discover us. But if NASA’s current timeline holds water, another civilisation has only a few more decades to get here before we claim the mantle of ‘discoverer’ rather than ‘discovered’. With every passing day, it grows more likely that ‘first contact’ will not take the form of an intellectual or moral back-and-forth between equals. It will be more like the discovery of a natural resource, and one we might be able to exploit. It won’t be an encounter, or even a conquest. It will be a gold rush.

This makes defining an ethics of contact necessary now, before we have to put it into practice.•