In the final frontier, how should we behave?

Why We Wrote This

As the discovery of life in other solar systems shifts from the possible toward the probable, scientists and policymakers are starting to ask questions of ethics. What responsibilities would come with such a discovery?

JPL-Caltech/NASA
This illustration shows what the TRAPPIST-1 star system might look like from a vantage point near planet TRAPPIST-1f (at right). A new European space telescope has joined the field hunting for habitable worlds beyond our solar system.

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Suddenly it was not “if,” but “when.” The possibility of discovering life elsewhere in the cosmos went from fringe theory to reasoned speculation when scientists first detected planets orbiting other stars. 

“We’ve learned in the last twenty years,” says Christopher Broeg, a researcher at the University of Bern, “that our solar system is not alone. ... Every star that you see has planets, roughly.”

That shift has raised a host of societal, political, environmental, and ethical dilemmas that not that long ago seemed hazy and hypothetical problems at best. But now those questions are coming to the fore, as traveling to other solar systems – and potentially interacting with alien life – may soon be on the horizon. 

Many things still have yet to be done before humans rocket off to worlds beyond our solar system. Scientists are still pinpointing where we might best look to find alien life. But a joint Swiss and European Space Agency mission launched on Wednesday, called the CHaracterising ExOPlanet Satellite, or CHEOPS, aims to make that quest more certain. The space telescope is honing its sensors to determine which exoplanets might be habitable – or, indeed, inhabited. 

Who doesn’t feel the tug of Orion’s bow string when staring into the deep, cold magic of the night sky? After all, the constellations were named by ancient peoples with rich imaginations and a deep desire to understand their place in a vast, inexplicable, and empty cosmos.

“There’s something great about astronomy,” says Swiss physicist Didier Queloz. “When we talk about planets and stars, everybody has this mental picture of what it is.”

But hold on, say astronomers, just how empty of life is that vastness?

That pointed question of our unique – or not – place in the cosmos, is prodding 21st-century people in ways the ancients may never have imagined.

On Wednesday, a new space telescope took to the skies to bring that question into sharper relief. CHEOPS (CHaracterising ExOPlanet Satellite) is a joint Swiss and European Space Agency mission spearheaded by Dr. Queloz and physicist Willy Benz at the University of Bern. 

Like an exquisitely calibrated Swiss watch, CHEOPS isn’t looking for new exoplanets like its forbears. Rather, it’s honing its sensors to carefully observe some of the 4,000-plus worlds that have already been discovered.

The idea is to determine which might be habitable – or, indeed, inhabited.

The possibility of discovering life elsewhere in the cosmos went from fringe theory to reasoned scientific speculation in 1995 when Dr. Queloz and fellow physicist Michel Mayor made a Nobel Prize-winning discovery. They identified 51 Pegasi b, an exoplanet orbiting a sun with characteristics similar to our own. Suddenly it was not “if,” but “when.”

That shift has raised a host of societal, political, environmental, and ethical dilemmas that not that long ago seemed hazy and hypothetical problems at best. Suddenly, scientists who are accustomed to wrestling with physics are starting to consider more philosophical questions about what responsibility may come with a discovery of life. Those questions are coming to the fore as traveling to other solar systems – and potentially interacting with alien life – may soon appear on the horizon.

Jonas Ekstromer/TT News Agency/AP
Physics laureate Didier Queloz from Switzerland delivers his Nobel Lecture, at Stockholm University, in Sweden, Dec. 8, 2019.

“Our solar system is not alone”

Christopher Broeg, project manager for the CHEOPS mission, sketches hastily with a sharpie on a whiteboard to emphasize his point. Previous efforts have identified either the size or mass of an exoplanet, but rarely both. What sets CHEOPS apart, says Dr. Broeg, is that the space telescope aims to bring the two together.

The focus has long been on adding more exoplanets to the roster. But CHEOPS will take a second look at exoplanets with masses we already know, adding data about their size. Taken together the mass and size of a planet can yield its density, which in turn hints at the chemical composition of that world. For instance, is it rocky? Does it have a water ocean? Is it gaseous? Those clues might help answer questions of habitability – and possible life.

“The interesting thing to me that we’ve learned in the last twenty years,” Dr. Broeg says, “is that our solar system is not alone. ... Every star that you see has planets, roughly. … The great thing is that if you look out in the night sky and you see every little tiny star – there is a solar system.”

Dr. Broeg offers a tour of the full-scale model of CHEOPS in the student-filled lobby at the University of Bern. Looking at it in its glass display case, it seems like a daunting task is being asked of this stout little drum of golden tinfoil, just 4 feet and 11 inches in all directions. But then I remember the Swiss watch.

Although the precision and accuracy of a mission to find Earth-like planets might increase their success rate, what comes after that is still, at least publicly, undetermined. 

Questions about forming policy for such engagement seem vague. There is already an international agreement for how humans should conduct themselves in space. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 bans the use and deployment of weapons of mass destruction in outer space and also “prohibits military activities on celestial bodies.”

The treaty was visionary for its time, two years before the first lunar landing, and reflects the pitch of concern about hostilities between the United States and the former Soviet Union. But it doesn’t address thorny issues like colonization or governance, for instance, that may arise if we find and explore Earth-like exoplanets.

To some, setting policy for something like colonization is remotely futuristic. “It’s almost ... science fiction,” says Henry Hertzfeld, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.

“I mean, right now we’re having trouble just putting people in space,” he says. “We don’t have the technology to keep people alive for a long time in that very harsh environment.”

Dr. Hertzfeld adds that the Outer Space Treaty, as well as other United Nations resolutions, is still relevant, at least for now, for holding nations accountable in their outer space ventures. And beyond that, he adds, “I’m going back to a very practical approach, to saying, ‘I don’t know what it will look like in the future.’”

M. Pedoussaut/ESA/AP
The CHEOPS satellite, installed on the flight adapter ring, is being placed on the Soyuz Fregat launch vehicle. CHEOPS is the European Space Agency’s first mission dedicated to the study of extrasolar planets, or exoplanets. It will observe bright stars that are already known to host planets, measuring minuscule brightness changes due to the planet’s transit across the star’s disc.

Making contact?

Other researchers are already trying to identify and make contact with intelligent extraterrestrial life through other means.

Right now the success probability seems low for those particular outer space pursuits. But, says Luke Matthews, a Rand Corp. behavioral and social scientist, it’s way higher than it was even 15 years ago. 

And once contact is established, he says, the policy issues surrounding it will concern a strategic and social interaction that “has nothing to do with physics or astronomy or the kinds of things that people who do this think about.” Dr. Matthews says this is relevant to missions such as CHEOPS because now there’s much more likelihood to be able to identify rocky exoplanets – it’s no longer an uncertain quest in a random field of space.

This doesn’t mean the science should stop, he says, which is something scientists fear most about policy work or government oversight, just that policy should be in place before we make contact with any aliens, to avoid unintended consequences.

Exploitation of resources and respect for sentient life forms are also policy issues that others say must be considered. 

Missions such as CHEOPS open the imagination to realms of possibility, says Prathima Muniyappa, a research assistant at MIT Media Lab Space Enabled research group. It offers a way to consider space as not just an “empty frontier … ready for conquering or colonization.”

Ms. Muniyappa studies alternative cosmologies and cultural ontologies with an eye to issues that bear on social justice. Her work with indigenous groups has revealed a viewpoint that differs from most Western attitudes in that inner and outer space journeys are seen to be one, she says. 

Another MIT Media Lab investigator, Nicole L’Huillier, echoes this thought of unity and interrelatedness. 

As an interdisciplinary artist, Ms. L’Huillier creates pieces that reflect the desire to assimilate the diverse perspectives of cosmologies and astronomical phenomena and what future interactions with life outside our solar system might foretell.

When it comes to policy, Ms. L’Huillier encourages reverent regard for these planets rather than viewing them as an opportunity for exploitation. She notes that she sees “everything in relationship with something else. … That’s what I think is really beautiful … this larger orchestration of everything.”

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