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The Ethics of Interstellar Alien Encounters

During the Starship Congress last week in Dallas, Texas, discussions focused on the myriad of topics associated with humans pushing into space and, ultimately, becoming an interstellar civilization. It quickly became apparent that if you think on a large enough scale, over a vast enough time frame, pushing humanity deeper into the galaxy is not a sci-fi notion, it’s an evolutionary imperative.

But let us assume for a minute that we will overcome the huge technological challenges of propelling starships to neighboring star systems and begin a new age of galactic colonization. Let us also assume that the profound question “Are we alone?” will be answered. We will have clawed our way to the stars to find that life is simply a chemical complication and, given the correct conditions, biology is possible anywhere.

As we come face-to-face with our extraterrestrial neighbors, what would — indeed, what should — we do?

Ethical Concerns

In a fascinating panel discussion on Friday (Aug. 16) at the Starship Congress, representatives from interstellar organizations weighed in on the ethical implications of making “first contact” with aliens — whether aliens are considered “intelligent” (or at least appear to be sentient) or whether they are in the dawn of their evolution as single-celled microorganisms.

The construction of some kind of ethical framework would be necessary and comparisons were made with Star Trek’s “Prime Directive” that is used in the fictional universe to prevent cultural interference between the advanced Federation and other burgeoning alien civilizations. How much would such a framework borrow from science fiction? Would it even be needed?

Les Johnson, chair of the Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop and deputy manager for NASA’s Advanced Concepts Office at the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, outlined some logical criteria for our interstellar descendents to refer to should they stumble upon any extraterrestrial life.

The first criteria should be “learn all you can learn before risking anything,” he said. The second should be “if it seems to be Alive leave it Alone!” And the third: “avoid bringing samples to the homeworld because I don’t want to bet on it being 100 percent incompatible with our ecosystem.”

The third criteria was countered by Jim Benford, president of Microwave Sciences Inc. and co-author of “Starship Century,” arguing that perhaps we shouldn’t expend too much concern for some alien microbe “infecting” us or harming our biology in some way. Instead, Benford argued, in the event of encountering an alien world, it is inevitable that we would want to set up a manned outpost to carry out scientific investigations. Should we interact with extraterrestrial biology, we will be so unalike (biologically speaking) that it is highly improbable that we will be negatively impacted.

Drawing examples from terrestrial nature, Johnson pointed out that invasive species introduced to vulnerable regions have caused untold damage. Lacking predators or environmental limitations, could a newly-introduced alien species to our environment take over and threaten our survival? Other panelists pointed out that it might not be such a great idea to bring extraterrestrial biology back to Earth, just in case.

Open to Interpretation

Kelvin Long, co-founder of the UK-based Institute for Interstellar Studies, supported the need for interstellar guidelines in regard to extraterrestrial contact, but also pointed out that these moral guidelines will likely be interpreted in different ways by different individuals throughout a hypothetical sprawling interstellar civilization. However, by that stage in our evolution, Earth-analog planets would likely be less important to our survival — we would have become more space dwellers than planet-dwellers. Life-giving planets would therefore be more of scientific interest than somewhere for us to simply colonize.

“It is neither a case of moral respect or survival of the fittest but of the fact that we will have evolved as a society which does not need to compete (with indigenous lifeforms),” said Long.

Marc Millis, founder of the Tau Zero Foundation, was realistic about human nature in space. Despite obviously evolving into a grand interstellar race capable of communicating with other forms of life, he also agreed that any ethical guideline will be interpreted in different ways and it will be highly likely that mistakes will happen along the way. “There will certainly be some bad events happen and they will probably be unavoidable,” he said.

Richard Obousy, president and co-founder of Icarus Interstellar, was blunt with his assessment of humanity’s future in interstellar space, saying, “I’m pro-human being.”

Obousy agreed that we should propagate into the galaxy with solid ethical principals “and we should treat other things that we discover with compassion,” but ultimately he wants what’s best for humans; using a planet’s resources shouldn’t be stifled merely by the presence of basic lifeforms. However, should the alien life be in some way sentient, greater care should be taken and contact with the species should be considered only if absolutely necessary.

As for colonizing those worlds containing basic lifeforms, it is less likely that we’d want to hang around very long. “We live in the depths of a gravitational abyss,” said Obousy. Assuming our interstellar descendents has access to huge quantities of energy and resources, “I’m not convinced that we’ll want to go from one gravitational abyss to another gravitational abyss. I’m not convinced that settling on planets or even moons is going to be necessary.”

To ‘Colonize’ or Not to ‘Colonize’?

Interestingly, financial economist and “Alpha Centauri Award” winner Armen Papazian, countered that our politics and history have skewed our concept of colonization and exploration.

“There’s a linguistic issue here and a historic issue,” said Papazian. “Much of what we understand in our psyche when we say ‘colonization’ in the context of a political map has been so charged with specific historic events that ‘colonization’ means a lot of different things around the planet.”

Ultimately, Papazian argued, we need to understand what we are exploring the galaxy for, and if we approach it with an enlightened attitude, we should be able to explore for the right reasons. “Are we going to embrace or are we going to utilize? Are we trying to export our scarcity economics? Or are we trying to enjoy an abundant cosmos?” he asked.

ANALYSIS: Starship Congress: A Very Human Interstellar Journey

Finally, Joe Ritter, optics engineer at the University of Hawaii, approached the question from personal experience. As a resident on Maui, invasive species have caused many issues for the small island, and what is sacred to the islanders wouldn’t necessarily be understood by outsiders. He therefore doubted that humans will have the ability to not interfere with alien life (and their environment) regardless of whether they are sentient or not.

“In my opinion, if we’re enlightened, we’ll leave it alone … Will humans do that? Probably not,” concluded Ritter.

The question as to whether we’ll meet intelligent extraterrestrial life forms at all was the topic of much debate throughout the Starship Congress. After all, the sheer luck of bumping into a civilization at the similar stage of development as ourselves will be vanishingly small. Perhaps when we make first contact, we won’t even be aware — the alien life we encounter may have technologies that we don’t even recognize as technology. Or we may sail the vast expanses between the stars never to meet anything even vaguely sentient. But in a universe of seemingly boundless opportunity, it seems unlikely that, as we truly become interstellar, we’ll never encounter another example of biology anywhere in the galaxy. But for now, that’s pure conjecture; the only evidence for life is here on Earth.

Regardless, it would be nice to see if there are any living beings out there. Perhaps we should build a starship to find out.




Voyager 2 has discovered something amazing: Denser space outside the solar system

In November 2018, after a 41-year voyage, Voyager 2 crossed the boundary beyond which the Sun’s influence ends, and entered interstellar space. But the mission of the little probe is not yet complete – it continues to make amazing discoveries

Perhaps the probes have found some kind of traffic jam at the edge of the solar system. The Voyager flight continues and we will soon find out what it was.

Voyager 2 discovered something amazing: as the distance from the Sun increases, the density of space increases.

Voyager 1, which entered interstellar space in 2012, transmitted similar indicators to Earth. New data have shown that the increase in density may be a feature of the interstellar medium.

The solar system has several boundaries, one of which, called the heliopause, is determined by the solar wind, or rather by its significant weakening. The space inside the heliopause is the heliosphere, and the space outside is the interstellar medium. But the heliosphere is not round. It looks more like an oval, in which the solar system is at the leading edge, and a kind of tail stretches behind it.

Both Voyagers crossed the heliopause at the leading edge, but within 67 degrees heliographic latitude and 43 degrees longitude apart.

Interstellar space is usually considered a vacuum, but this is not entirely true. The density of matter is extremely small, but it still exists. In the solar system, the solar wind has an average density of protons and electrons from 3 to 10 particles per cubic centimeter, but it is lower the further from the Sun.

The average concentration of electrons in the interstellar space of the Milky Way is estimated to be about 0.037 particles per cubic centimeter. And the plasma density in the outer heliosphere reaches approximately 0.002 electrons per cubic centimeter. When the Voyager probes crossed the heliopause, their instruments recorded the electron density of the plasma through plasma oscillations.

Voyager 1 crossed the heliopause on August 25, 2012 at a distance of 121.6 astronomical units from the Earth (121.6 times the distance from Earth to the Sun – about 18.1 billion km). When he first measured plasma oscillations after crossing the heliopause on October 23, 2013 at a distance of 122.6 astronomical units (18.3 billion km), he found a plasma density of 0.055 electrons per cubic centimeter.

After flying another 20 astronomical units (2.9 billion kilometers), Voyager 1 reported an increase in the density of interstellar space to 0.13 electrons per cubic centimeter.

Voyager 2 crossed the heliopause on November 5, 2018 at a distance of 119 astronomical units (17.8 billion kilometers. On January 30, 2019, it measured plasma oscillations at a distance of 119.7 astronomical units (17.9 billion kilometers), finding that the density plasma is 0.039 electrons per cubic centimeter.

In June 2019, Voyager 2’s Instruments showed a sharp increase in density to about 0.12 electrons per cubic centimeter at a distance of 124.2 astronomical units (18.5 billion kilometers).

What caused the increase in the density of space? One theory is that the lines of force of the interstellar magnetic field become stronger with distance from the heliopause. This can cause electromagnetic ion cyclotron instability. Voyager 2 did detect an increase in the magnetic field after crossing the heliopause.

Another theory is that the material carried away by the interstellar wind should slow down in the heliopause, forming a kind of plug, as evidenced by the weak ultraviolet glow detected by the New Horizons probe in 2018, caused by the accumulation of neutral hydrogen in the heliopause.

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NASA has banned fighting and littering on the moon

New details of the agreement signed by representatives of a number of countries on the development of the moon and the extraction of minerals within the framework of the Artemis program have appeared. Reported by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

So, astronauts involved in the mission are prohibited from littering and fighting on the territory of a natural satellite of the Earth.

So, we present to you the new rules for being on the Moon:

Everyone comes in peace;

Confidentiality is prohibited, all launched objects must be identified and registered;

All travel participants agree to help each other in case of emergencies;

All received data is transferred to the rest of the participants, and space systems must be universal;

Historic sites must be preserved and all rubbish must be disposed of;

Rovers and spacecraft should not interfere with other participants.

“”It is important not only to go to the moon with our astronauts, but also that we bring our values ​​with us,” said Mike Gold, acting head of NASA’s international and inter-agency relations.

According to him, violators of the above rules will be asked to “just leave” the territory of the moon.

The effect of these principles so far applies to eight signatory countries of the agreement: the USA, Australia, Canada, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom. Countries other than China can join if they wish.

 It should be noted that at the moment NASA is prohibited from signing any bilateral agreements with the PRC leadership.

The first NASA mission to the moon, known as “Artemis 1”, is scheduled for 2021 without astronauts, and “Artemis 2” will fly with a crew in 2023.

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Methane snow found on the tops of Pluto’s equatorial mountains

Scientists believe that it arose as a result of the accumulation of large amounts of methane at an altitude of several kilometers above the surface of the planet.

In the images of the Cthulhu region – a dark region in the equatorial regions of Pluto – planetary scientists have found large reserves of methane snow that covers the peaks of local mountains and hills. It formed quite differently from how snow forms on Earth, astronomers write in the scientific journal Nature Communications.

“The white caps on the tops of Pluto’s mountains did not arise from the cooling of air currents that rise along the slopes into the upper atmosphere, as it happens on Earth, but from the accumulation of large amounts of methane at an altitude of several kilometers above Pluto’s surface. This gas condensed on the mountain tops, “the scientists write.

We owe almost everything we know about Pluto to the New Horizons interplanetary station. It was launched in January 2006, and in mid-July 2015 the station reached the Pluto system. New Horizons flew just 13 thousand km from the dwarf planet, taking many photographs of its surface. 

New Horizons data indicated an interesting feature of Pluto – in its depths, a giant subglacial ocean of liquid water can be hidden. It can be a kind of engine of those geological processes, traces of which can be seen on the surface of a dwarf planet. Because of this discovery of New Horizons, many discussions began among planetary scientists. Scientists are trying to understand how such a structure could have arisen, as well as to find out the appearance of Pluto in the distant past.

Members of the New Horizons science team and their colleagues from France, led by planetary scientist from NASA’s Ames Research Center (USA) Tanguy Bertrand, have discovered another unusual feature of Pluto. They studied the relief of one of the regions of the dwarf planet – the Cthulhu region. This is what astronomers call a large dark region at Pluto’s equator, which is whale-like in shape and is covered in many craters, mountains and hills.

Snow in Pluto’s mountains

By analyzing images of these structures taken by the LORRI camera installed on board New Horizons, astronomers have noticed many blank spots on the slopes of the highest mountain peaks. Having studied their composition, scientists have found that they consist mainly of methane.

Initially, planetary scientists assumed that these are deposits of methane ice. However, Bertrand and his colleagues found that the slopes and even the tops of Pluto’s equatorial mountains are actually covered not only with ice, but also with exotic methane snow that forms right on their surface.

Planetary scientists came to this conclusion by calculating how methane behaves in Pluto’s atmosphere. In doing so, they took into account how the molecules of its gases interact with the sun’s rays and other heat sources. It turned out that at the equator of Pluto, at an altitude of 2-3 km from its surface, due to the special nature of the movement of winds, unique conditions have formed, due to which snow is formed from methane vapor.

Unlike Earth, where such deposits are formed as a result of the rise of warm air into the upper atmosphere, on Pluto this process goes in the opposite direction – as a result of contact of the cold surface of the peaks and slopes of mountains with warm air masses from the relatively high layers of the dwarf planet’s atmosphere.

Previously, as noted by Bertrand and his colleagues, scientists did not suspect that this was possible. The fact is that they did not take into account that due to the deposition of even a small amount of methane snow and ice, the reflectivity of the peaks and slopes of mountains in the Cthulhu region increases. As a result, their surface temperature drops sharply, and snow forms even faster.

Scientists suggest that another mysterious feature of Pluto’s relief could have arisen in a similar way – the so-called Tartarus Ridges, located east of the Sputnik plain. A distinctive feature of this mountainous region is strange peaks that are shaped like skyscrapers or blades. Bertrand and his colleagues suggest that these peaks are also methane ice deposits that grow “from top to bottom.”

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