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TO BOLDLY INVADE WHERE NO EARTHLING HAS GONE BEFORE: WHY FORWARD CONTAMINATION NEEDS TO BE ADDRESSED BY THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY

TO BOLDLY INVADE WHERE NO EARTHLING HAS GONE BEFORE: WHY FORWARD CONTAMINATION NEEDS TO BE ADDRESSED BY THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY

Nick Hinckley

The mysterious void of outer space is one of the last great unknowns yet to be understood. Is there life beyond earth? That question plaguing humans for generations has yet to be answered. However, the solution draws near.[1] We may not know what is out there, but we do know that organisms from earth can survive the vacuum of space.[2] Not only can simple organisms survive, but even animals have been found to survive the extreme dehydration and UV radiation they encounter beyond Earth’s atmosphere.[3] So when we discover life, how can we be sure that we were not the ones who brought it there?

This issue, known as forward contamination, is a genuine concern.[4] Organisms can be brought to other celestial bodies by manned missions, rovers, or even fly bys.[5] In order to preserve the scientific integrity of these celestial bodies, it is imperative that they remain free from forward contamination.[6] But why is contamination such an issue? Some scholars believe that forward contamination is not a valid concern and the scientific community is hindered by its apprehension to exploring celestial bodies.[7] Despite these concerns, the consensus in the scientific community is that space has countless scientific wonders yet to be discovered.[8] It is even believed that space holds the keys to discovering the origins of life.[9]

There is a legal regime in place to protect the Earth and other planets or asteroids from contamination,[10] but this Note asserts that one outdated treaty is not enough. Part I will discuss the science behind contamination, how it happens, and what sort of organisms are capable of surviving in space. Part II will discuss the protection measures currently in existence (mainly the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space (Outer Space Treaty) and how they are inadequate. Part III will discuss how those existing measures are enforced. Part IV will discuss existing instruments that inspire the potential alternatives. And Part V will how the potential alternatives will better protect significant extraterrestrial bodies from forward contamination. This Note will mainly focus on Mars due to its close proximity and scientific relevance.

[1] Mike Wall, Signs of Alien Life Will Be Found by 2025, NASA’s Chief Scientist Predicts, Space (Apr. 7, 2015), https://www.space.com/29041-alien-life-evidence-by-2025-nasa.html.

[2] Sancho et al., Lichens Survive in Space: Results from the 2005 LICHENS Experiment, 7 Astrobiology 344, 443 (July 13, 2007).

[3] Jönsson et al., Tardigrades survive exposure to space in low Earth orbit, 18 Current Biology 729, 729 (Sept. 9, 2008).

[4] Molly K. Macauley, Flying in the Face of Uncertainty: Human Risk in Space Activities, 6 Chi. J. Int’l L. 131, 143 (2005).

[5] Gustavo Boccardo, UPDATE: Planetary Protection Obligations of States Pursuant to the Space Treaties and with Special Emphasis on National Legislations Provisions, GlobalLex https://www.nyulawglobal.org/globalex/Planetary_Protection_Obligations_States1.html (Jan. 2018).

[6] Jeb Butler, Unearthly Microbes and the Laws Designed to Resist Them, 41 Ga. L. Rev. 1355, 1360 (2007).

[7] David Rothery, How do rules on contamination limit our ability to explore space?, OpenLearn https://www.open.edu/openlearn/science-maths-technology/astronomy/how-do-rules-on-contamination-limit-our-ability-explore-space, (Last updated July, 2017).

[8] See Top 10 Unsolved Mysteries of the Strange Universe, UK Research and Innovation (Oct. 23, 2017), https://stfc.ukri.org/news-events-and-publications/features/the-story-of-dark-matter/top-10-unsolved-mysteries-of-the-strange-universe/ (highlighting ten of the many questions modern science has not been able to answer).

[9] Patrick Caughill, Scientists Find New Evidence That Life Could Have Begun In Space, Space (Dec. 15, 2017), https://futurism.com/scientists-find-new-evidence-life-begun-space.

[10] Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Jan. 27, 1967, 18 U.S.T. 2410 [hereinafter Outer Space Treaty].

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