Interstellar flight poses no shortage of ethical questions. How to proceed if an intelligent species is discovered is a classic. If the species is primitive in terms of technology, do we announce ourselves to it, or observe from a distance, following some version of Star Trek‘s Prime Directive? One way into such issues is to ask how we would like to be treated ourselves if, say, a Type II civilization – stunningly more powerful than our own – were to show up entering the Solar System.

Even more theoretical, though, is the question of panspermia, and in particular the idea of propagating life by making panspermia a matter of policy. Directed panspermia, as we saw in the last post, is the idea of using technology to spread life deliberately, something that is not currently within our power but can be reasonably extrapolated as one path humans might choose within a century or two. The key question is why we would do this, and on the broadest level, the answer takes in what seems to be an all but universal assumption, that life in itself is good.

Image: Can life be spread by comets? Comet 2I/Borisov is only the second interstellar object known to have passed through our Solar System, but presumably there are vast numbers of such objects moving between the stars. In this image taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, the comet appears in front of a distant background spiral galaxy (2MASX J10500165-0152029, also known as PGC 32442). The galaxy’s bright central core is smeared in the image because Hubble was tracking the comet. Borisov was approximately 326 million kilometres from Earth in this exposure. Its tail of ejected dust streaks off to the upper right. Credit: ESA/Hubble.

How Common is Life?

Let’s explore how this assumption plays out when weighed against the problems that directed panspermia could trigger. I turn to Christopher McKay, Paul Davies and Simon Worden, whose paper in the just published collection Interstellar Objects in Our Solar System examines the use of interstellar comets to spread life in the cosmos. An entry point into the issue is the fi factor in the Drake Equation, which yields the fraction of planets on which life appears.

We need to know whether life is present in any system to which we might send a probe to seed new life forms – major problems of contamination obviously arise and must be avoided. If we assume a galaxy crowded with life, we would not send such missions. Directed panspermia becomes an issue only when we are dealing with planets devoid of life. To the objection that everything seems to favor life elsewhere because we couldn’t possibly live in the only place in the universe where life exists, the answer must be that we have no understanding of how life began. Abiogenesis remains a mystery and the cosmos may indeed be empty.

We live in the fascinating window of time in which our civilization will begin to get answers on this, particularly as we probe into biomarkers in exoplanet atmospheres and conceivably discover other forms of life in venues like the gas giant moons. But we don’t have such answers yet, and it is sensible to point out, as the authors do, that the Principle of Mediocrity, which suggests that there is nothing special about our Solar System or Earth itself, is a philosophical argument, not one that has been proven by science. We have no idea if there is life elsewhere, even if many of us hope it is there.

Protecting existing life is paramount, and the authors point to the planetary protection issues we face in terraforming Mars, the latter being a local kind of directed panspermia. They cite the basic principle: “…planetary protection would dictate that life forms should not be introduced, either in a directed mode or through random processes, to any planet which already has life.”

I like the way McKay, Davies and Worden present these issues. In particular, assuming we picked out a likely planet in the habitable zone of its star, would there ever be a way to demonstrate that life does not exist on it? The answer is thorny, it being impossible to prove a negative. This gives rise to the possibilities the authors consider when evaluating whether directed panspermia could be used. From the paper:

1. Life might exist on a target planet in low abundance and be snuffed out by seeding.

2. Alien life might be abundant on a planet but present unfamiliar biosignatures yielding a false negative.

3. A comet might successfully seed a barren target planet but go on to contaminate others that already host life, either in the same planetary system or another. The long-term trajectory of a comet is almost impossible to predict.

4. Even if terrestrial life does not directly engage with alien life, it may be more successful in appropriating resources, thus driving indigenous biota to extinction by starvation

There are ways around these issues. Snuffing out life would not be likely if we seeded a protoplanetary disk rather than a fully formed world, which would also remove objection 2, for there would be no biosignatures to be had. A planet that turns out not to be barren might be saved from our seeding efforts by using some kind of ‘kill switch’ that is available to destroy the inoculated life. But all these issues loom large, so large that directed panspermia collapses unless we establish that numerous habitable but lifeless worlds do exist. If life is vanishingly rare, then a kind of galactic altruism can be invoked, seeing our species as gifted with the chance to spread life in the galaxy.

Off on a Comet

All this is dependent on advances in exoplanet characterization and research into life’s origins on Earth, but the questions are worth asking because we may, relatively soon as civilizations go, begin to learn tentative answers. It seems natural that the authors would turn to interstellar comets as a delivery vehicle of choice. Here’s a passage from the paper, examining how spores from a directed panspermia effort could be spread through passing comets by the injection of a biological inoculum into comets whose trajectories are hyperbolic or could otherwise be modified. Such objects need not impact another planet but could be effective simply passing through their stellar system:

These small particles are subsequently shed as the comet passes through systems that have, or will form into, suitable planets, such as protostellar molecular clouds, planet-forming nebulae around stars, and recently formed planetary systems. The comets themselves are unlikely to be gravitationally captured or collide as they move through star systems… but the small dust particles released by the comet—as observed in 2I/Borisov—will be captured. Particles measuring a few 10s to 100s microns in radius are large enough to hold many microorganisms but small enough to enter a planetary atmosphere without significant heating.

Image: This artist’s impression shows the first interstellar object discovered in the Solar System, `Oumuamua. Note the outgassing the artist inserts into the image as a subtle cloud being ejected from the side of the object facing the Sun. Credit: ESA/Hubble, NASA, ESO, M. Kornmesser.

The focus on comets is natural in the era of ‘Oumuamua and 2I/Borisov, and the expectation is widespread that we will be learning of interstellar objects in huge numbers moving through the Solar System as we expand our observing efforts. Why not hitch a ride? There is every expectation that the inoculum injected into a comet could survive the journey, to one day settle into a planetary atmosphere. Thus:

One meter of ice reduces the radiation dose by about five orders of magnitude… In a water-rich interstellar comet, internal radiation from long-lived radioactive elements (U, Th, K) would be expected to be less than crustal levels on the Earth. In such an environment, known terrestrial organisms might remain viable for tens to hundreds of millions of years. We can also take into account advances in gene editing and related technologies that might enable psychrophiles, which are able to very slowly metabolize and repair genetic damage at temperatures as low as-40°C…, to ”tick over,” although slowly, at still lower temperatures. That would enable them to remain viable for even longer durations.

The time scales for delivering an inoculum to an exoplanet are mind-boggling, on the order of 105 to 106 years just to pass near another stellar system. The authors point out that given the hyperbolic velocity of 2I/Borisov, it would take the comet approximately 40,000 years to travel the distance to Alpha Centauri, and 500 million years to travel the distance of the Milky Way’s radius. Indeed, the most likely previous encounter of ‘Oumuamua with another star occurred 1 million years ago.

Perhaps orbital interventions when seeding the comet could alter its trajectory toward specific stars, to avoid the random nature of the seeding program. And I think they would be necessary: Random trajectories might well take our comet into stellar systems with living worlds that we know nothing about. Thus the authors’ point #3 above.

The Rhythms of Panspermia

Clearly, directed panspermia by interstellar comet is for the patient at heart. And as far as I can see, it’s also something a civilization would do completely out of philosophical or altruistic motives, for there is no conceivable return from mounting such an effort beyond the satisfaction of having done it. I often address questions of value that extend beyond individual lifetimes, but here we are talking about not just individual but civilizational lifetimes. Is there anything in human culture that suggests an adherence to this kind of ultra long-range altruism? It’s a question I continue to mull over on my walks. I’d also appreciate pointers to science fiction treatments of this question.

There is an interesting candidate for directed panspermia close to the Sun: Epsilon Eridani. Here we have a youthful system, thought to be less than a billion years old, with two debris belts and two planets thus far discovered, one a gas giant, the other a sub-Neptune. If there is a terrestrial-class world in the habitable zone here, it would be a potential target for a life-bearing mission. So too might a Titan-class world, which raises the interesting question of whether different types of habitability should be considered. We may well find exotic life not just on Titan but also under the ice of Europa, giving us three starkly different possibilities. Would a directed panspermia effort be restricted to terrestrial class worlds like Earth?

Whatever our ethical concerns may be, directed panspermia is technologically feasible for a civilization advanced enough to manipulate comets, and thus we come back to the possibility, discussed decades ago by Francis Crick and Leslie Orgel, that our own Solar System may have been seeded for life by another civilization. If this is true, we might find evidence of complex biological materials in comet dust. We would also, as the authors point out, expect life to be phylogenetically related throughout the Solar System, whether under Europan ice or on the surface of Mars or indeed Earth.

Always complicating such discussions is the possibility of natural panspermia establishing life widely through ejecta from early impacts, so we are in complex chains of causation here. We’re also in the dense thicket of human ethics and aspiration. Let’s assume, as the authors do, that directed panspermia is out for any world that already has life. But if life is truly rare, would humanity have the sense of obligation to embark on a program whose results would never be visible to its creators? We cherish life, but where do we find the imperative to spread it into a barren cosmos?

I’ll close with a lengthy passage from Olaf Stapledon, a frequent touchstone of mine, who discussed “the forlorn task of disseminating among the stars the seeds of a new humanity” in Last and First Men (1930):

For this purpose we shall make use of the pressure of radiation from the sun, and chiefly the extravagantly potent radiation that will later be available. We are hoping to devise extremely minute electro-magnetic “wave-systems,” akin to normal protons and electrons, which will be individually capable of sailing forward upon the hurricane of solar radiation at a speed not wholly incomparable with the speed of light itself. This is a difficult task. But, further, these units must be so cunningly inter-related that, in favourable conditions, they may tend to combine to form spores of life, and to develop, not indeed into human beings, but into lowly organisms with a definite evolutionary bias toward the essentials of human nature. These objects we shall project from beyond our atmosphere in immense quantities at certain points of our planet’s orbit, so that solar radiation may carry them toward the most promising regions of the galaxy. The chance that any of them will survive to reach their destination is small, and still smaller the chance that any of them will find a suitable environment. But if any of this human seed should fall upon good ground, it will embark, we hope, upon a somewhat rapid biological evolution, and produce in due season whatever complex organic forms are possible in its environment. It will have a very real physiological bias toward the evolution of intelligence. Indeed it will have a much greater bias in that direction than occurred on the Earth in those sub-vital atomic groupings from which terrestrial life eventually sprang.

The paper is McKay, Davies & Worden, “Directed Panspermia Using Interstellar Comets,” Astrobiology Vol. 22 No. 12 (6 December 2022), 1443-1451. Full text.