Professor Believes It's Our Moral Imperative to Launch Packets of Life Into Space

Is it possible to send starter kits of Earth life to other worlds in the hopes of triggering terraforming processes all over the galaxy? Not only is it possible, argues Michael Mautner, but we have an obligation to do it.

Mautner is a research professor of chemistry at Virginia Commonwealth University, and he's received a bit of attention lately for declaring that humans have "a moral obligation" to seek and cultivate other worlds to inhabit. Mautner's argument seems to be that life has a responsibility to perpetuate life, and writ large, that means branching out from our crowded planet. The way we'd do this, he says, is by firing off homemade panspermia kits packed with oxygen-excreting microbes and other organisms that would set evolution in motion. Slowly but surely, the theory goes, whatever worlds these starter kits land on would become hospitable to higher forms of Earth life, including human beings.

It's sort of a "throw everything at the wall and see what sticks" approach, where in this case the wall is the universe. But Mautner's not just tilting at space windmills; he believes it can be done with existing technology, and he's already picked out a number of target worlds and satellites that he thinks would be favorable. The trick, he says, is aiming a rocket at any of these bodies with enough precision to ensure its safe arrival several millennia from now.

Okay, but what if we send a terraforming kit to a world where life is already in the process of evolving? Wouldn't we be knocking a whole planet's biosphere out of balance? Mautner doesn't seem worried about this; he says we can aim for planets whose conditions make it unlikely that life would have already developed, and anyway, our first concern should be ensuring that Earth life can continue to exist. There's also a possibility that life on our planet began, or was affected, by the same process—organisms arriving from elsewhere—in which case we'd just be participating in a cosmic game of Telephone.

You could argue that it might be a better use of time and money to work on improving the planet we've already got—keeping the environment healthy, figuring out more equitable ways of distributing resources. Then Earth life can continue to exist on Earth. But Mautner's all about the frontier, and for him it's a question of "basic ethical values," as he put it in a blog post a few weeks ago. When all is said and done, he says, "acts that secure life are good."

Image by Teleyinex, used under a Creative Commons license.