The Ethics of Planetary Exploration and Colonization

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Humans are no strangers to ravaging the land, but the stars have proven a good deal more elusive. So far, our ethical concerns have remained limited to the contamination of extraterrestrial environments, but what will the future bring?

Last night I attended a lecture by Jesuit Brother Guy J. Consolmagno, a U.S. research astronomer and planetary scientist at the Vatican Observatory. He gave a very engaging talk about the ethics of exploration and planetary astronomy, touching on two particularly noteworthy items:

Asteroid Mining

Can you put a price tag on an asteroid? Sure you can. We know of roughly 750 S-class asteroids with a diameter of at least 1 kilometer. Many of these pass as near to the Earth as our own moon — close enough to reach via spacecraft. As a typical asteroid is 10 percent metal, Brother Consolmango estimates that such an asteroid would contain 1 billion metric tons of iron. That's as much as we mine out of the globe every year, a supply worth trillions and trillions of dollars. Subtract the tens of billions it would cost to exploit such a rock, and you still have a serious profit on your hands.

But is this ethical? Brother Consolmango asked us to ponder whether such an asteroid harvest would drastically disrupt the economies of resource-exporting nations. What would happen to most of Africa? What would it do to the cost of iron ore? And what about refining and manufacturing? If we spend the money to harvest iron in space, why not outsource the other related processes as well? Imagine a future in which solar-powered robots toil in lunar or orbital factories.

"On the one hand, it's great," Brother Consolmango said. "You've now taken all of this dirty industry off the surface of the Earth. On the other hand, you've put a whole lot of people out of work. If you've got a robot doing the mining, why not another robot doing the manufacturing? And now you've just put all of China out of work. What are the ethical implications of this kind of major shift?"

Brother Consolmango also stressed that we have the technology to begin such a shift today; we'd just need the economic and political will to do it. Will our priorities change as Earth-bound resources become more and more scarce?  

Terraforming

Most of our planetary colonization dreams revolve around changing the environments of other worlds to cater to our own astronomically particular needs. Seriously, imagine if the Smoking Gun posted humanity's tour rider for visiting other worlds. What utter divas we are! As the alternative of changing ourselves to inhabit other worlds is largely unexplored, we have to ponder the far-future ethics of terraforming another planet.

Specifically, Brother Consolmango mentioned the idea of taking material from a c-class asteroid or a Martian moon and spreading it over Mars' pole caps. In theory, this feat would create the sort of drastic global warming we're hoping to avoid on Earth. Coated with dust, the poles would then absorb even more solar radiation than before, causing them to heat up and release carbon dioxide. Atmospheric pressure would increase. The resulting greenhouse effect could possibly raise temperatures to facilitate stabilized liquid water. This could lead to lakes, oxygen and a successful seeding of plant life. Eventually, Arnold Schwarzenegger would be able to take his space helmet off without his eyeballs exploding.

But what are the ethics of this (the terraforming, not the eyeball thing)? What if Mars already contains hidden life? Might the origins of life on Earth trail back to the red planet as well? Thoroughly contaminate everything and we might erase all trace of what was. And the past isn't the only thing potentially at stake.

"Here's a deeper question," Brother Consolmango said. "What if there is no life on Mars or Titan or some other place we're going to go to, but all the ingredients are there, such that at some future time life could exist. The potentiality of life is there and, by terraforming it, we're aborting that possibility. Under what circumstances is that an ethical thing to do?"

What do you think?

In addition to covering these topics, Brother Consolmango also touched base on the issues of light pollution, meteorite collecting and the coexistence of science and religion. On the meteorite issue, I was pleased to hear him hit all the points I made in my recent post on the matter.

And you can read my HowStuffWorks.com blog post Can science and religion coexist? for more on the religion/science issue.

Either way, feel free to spill your thoughts on the ethics of planetary exploration and colonization.

Learn to exploit some space at HowStuffWorks.com:

How Asteroid Mining Will Work

How Iron and Steel Work

How Mars Works

How Terraforming Mars Will Work

How Light Pollution Works

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