- By Ian O'Neill
The Huygens probe as it descended through Titan's atmosphere in 2004. Could a similar delivery method seed life on other worlds? (NASA)
The speculative mechanism of panspermia could explain how life formed on Earth and how it might exist elsewhere in our solar system and beyond. Hitching rides on chunks of rock blasted into space by meteorite impacts or gliding through space on a comet, it turns out that "life as we know it" has an astonishing knack of surviving in the most extreme environments.
But what if mankind could purposefully launch space probes packed with little biological "starter kits" toward star systems that appear to have the potential to nurture life? We have lots of life down here, isn't it our duty to spread our seed amongst the stars?
Yes, says Michael Mautner, Research Professor of Chemistry at Virginia Commonwealth University, in a paper submitted to an upcoming issue of the Journal of Cosmology. Before the rich biosphere of Earth is dead, Mautner believes that we need to ship Earth Brand™ biology to suitable adopted homes so our evolutionary line has a chance to gain a foothold elsewhere in the universe.
"We have a moral obligation to plan for the propagation of life, and even the transfer of human life to other solar systems which can be transformed via microbial activity, thereby preparing these worlds to develop and sustain complex life," Mautner said. "Securing that future for life can give our human existence a cosmic purpose."
These are certainly lofty plans, but he proposes that we send a variety of basic organisms to "potentially fertile" worlds throughout the universe (to worlds from a few to over 500 light years away). Using early-Earth as an example, organisms like cyanobacteria could be sent to alien worlds to go into reproductive overdrive, feasting on toxic gases and releasing byproducts such as oxygen.
These little biological starter kits would support a brand new biosphere, helping more complex life forms to develop and evolve.
(Is anyone else thinking this was borrowed from the plot of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock?)
In his paper, Mautner goes into some detail about what this galactic seeding mission would look like. As current launch costs are astonishingly high (using current technology, it costs $10,000 to get a one kilogram payload off the Earth's surface and into space), the space seeding pods would need to be small. But using tiny "pods" weighing only 0.1 grams, as many as 100,000 microorganisms could be accommodated to give a reasonable chance of success.
Perhaps surprisingly, he indicates that we'd need "hundreds of tons" of biological material. But in this case, the launch costs would be a modest $1 billion; a bargain considering we'd be ensuring the continuation of Earth Brand™ life on various new worlds.
All these plans are completely speculative however, and to put a cost on such a mission is fanciful at best. Although Prof. Mautner does a great job of identifying how we could go about flinging our seed to the furthermost reaches of the galaxy, I'd question the fundamental point of "directed panspermia" at all. Is it really our "moral responsibility"?
I understand that we -- as life forms -- see the whole life thing as sacred, but what if one of these biological pods fertilizes a world where another life form is struggling to survive? Who are we to say that our Earth Brand™ life is superior to another brand of alien microbe?
If our life takes hold of a planet where another life had the opportunity to evolve into an interstellar civilization in a couple of billions of years time, wouldn't we be in violation of some kind of cosmic anti-monopoly regulation (or at least in violation of the Prime Directive)?
And there's another thing to ponder: What if "life" is the universal equivalent of some kind of infection. Is life rare because the universe has a very strong immune system? Firing our genetic code far and wide could be considered to be biological pollution.
I'm all for spreading the human influence around the galaxy, but I think this can only be considered if we physically go to these alien worlds, to evaluate these places in person before we start setting up home. Blindly sending life from Earth to habitable worlds and planet-forming accretion disks seems a little reckless, especially as we have no clue about the consequences if we started impregnating unsuspecting planets.
I know these points are just as speculative as Mautner's paper, but it does make you wonder whether sending it into space is really a "moral responsibility" when we have little clue about who or what we are in the grand (cosmic) scale of things.
Just because we've got it doesn't mean the rest of the universe wants it.