Protect Europa!

Hello, friends!  We’ve reached the end of October, which means we’ve reached the end of Europa month here on Planet Pailly.  We still haven’t determined whether or not Europa is home to alien life, but I hope I’ve persuaded you to take the possibility of life on Europa seriously.

One question that came up a few times this month was whether or not we should send humans to Europa.  The answer, in my opinion, is no.  First off, as we discussed in a previous post, the radiation environment on Europa is crazy dangerous.  We humans would also struggle with the extreme cold and the very low surface gravity.  I’m not saying a colony on Europa is impossible, but there are far safer and easier places we could choose to go.  The neighboring moons of Ganymede and Callisto, for example, would serve as safer and more comfortable bases of operation for humans.

But there’s another reason why colonizing Europa seems like a bad idea to me.  It’s not a science reason.  It’s a legal issue.  There’s an international agreement in place (Article IX of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty) which forbids space agencies like NASA, the E.S.A., or Roscosmos from contaminating other worlds with our Earth germs.  The same agreement also forbids contaminating Earth with germs from other planets.

Some missions are considered riskier than others, contamination-wise.  For example, Article IX doesn’t really apply to NASA’s Parker Solar Probe.  There’s no chance Earth germs will be able to contaminate the Sun (and since the probe will not be returning to Earth, there’s no chance any lifeforms from the Sun could contaminate Earth).  There’s actually a whole risk categorization system in place, with five different categories of risk, and a bunch of sub-categories, too.  Click here if you want to know more details about that.

The important thing for our purposes is that any mission to Europa will involve a very high risk of contamination.  We may not know yet if alien life exists on Europa, but the possibility should be taken seriously.  The people who wrote the Outer Space Treaty made it clear that they’d learned the lessons of history and did not want to repeat the mistakes of the past.  We would not want Earth germs to endanger an alien ecosystem on Europa (nor would we want Europa germs endangering Earth-life).

So for the foreseeable future, I think Europa will be off limits to humans.  Europa might even be declared an interplanetary wilderness preserve, or something like that, and if there’s scientific research to be done on Europa, it can be done remotely from bases on Ganymede or Callisto.

There are easier places in the Solar System for us humans to colonize.  There’s no need for humans to go there.  So unless and until someone shows the contamination risk on Europa is zero, let’s leave Europa alone.


As part of my research for this post, I read the two papers listed below.  If you’re interested in how Earth laws work (or don’t work) in outer space, these papers are worth a look.  Also, if you’re interested in writing Sci-Fi, these papers may get the wheels of your Sci-Fi writer brain turning.

8 thoughts on “Protect Europa!

  1. I had no idea the contamination protocols were rooted in an actual treaty provision. And every country that might conceivably send a mission in the foreseeable future is a party or signatory. Interesting. All this time I’d been assuming that NASA was just being idealistically conscientious rather than just legally so. (Although I don’t doubt many at NASA do it from an idealistic place.)

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I’m sure there’s some conscientious idealism there, too. It’s not clear how the treaty would be enforced, and all the major space agencies of the world are currently following the rules voluntarily.

      That first article in the links is about why that’s going to be a problem going forward. More countries are getting involved in space exploration, and private companies are doing their own thing as well. Apparently an Israeli group already tried to send an illegal tardigrade experiment to the Moon, and Elon Musk is talking like Elon Musk regarding Mars.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. I was wondering how durable that treaty might be over time. When it starts to clash with the vested interests of influential people, like Musk, it seems like it might be in danger of going the way of the old treaties with native Americans which were so often ignored and then later altered by the stronger power.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. I wonder that, too. My suspicion is that it will fall apart rapidly if SpaceX actually does land on Mars. But I also think the international community would push back a lot harder against anyone who set their sights on Europa or Enceladus.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I ditto SelfAwarePatterns. Americans were happy to “give” (ha) worthless western dry lands to Native people until valuable resources were discovered. We humans have made great strides in technology, but in philosophy and ethics? In one of my stories, I have a character who wants to spread life thru the solar system. When asked about endangering ET, she says if she finds any ET, she’ll treasure and nurture it. Not a main point for the story…

        Liked by 3 people

      4. These issues are really good fuel for Sci-Fi. I do think that we humans have learned SOME lessons from history. How well have we learned those lessons, though? Probably not as well as you or I would like.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Carelessness is injurious, if not unjust? Hmm, The skies above earth are teeming with 8,000 manmade objects, so when no-ones looking…. hey Joe lets eject the parabolic troughs. Its leaking solar radiation into the ship and with the device nearly spent, heavy and slowing the spacecraft down. Its game over man!!!!” Astronaut Fred frowns heavilly “what about protocol, procedures and all that regulation stuff? ” Joe panics now “Some piece of paper on Earth aint gonna matter dude, out here in space? Are you joking me when we’ve got system-wide energy failures on our hands” Dump it out the port hole, it’ll orbit into the sun and burn up besides no-ones looking.”

    Only now we are, probably why we’ve got so many objects floating above our skies. Oh well, Heres to the United .Federation.of Earth Planets.

    Liked by 2 people

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