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.
WANT TO LEARN MORE?
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.
- “Planetary Protection in the New Space Era: Science and Governance” from Frontiers in Astronomy and Space Sciences.
- “How Much of the Solar System Should We Leave as Wilderness” from Acta Astronautica.