It was standing room only in Galileo 201 on March 16 for the Brousseau Spring Lecture by Dr. Margaret Race, principle investigator at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute, a private nonprofit organization that conducts scientific research, education and public outreach on the origins and existence of life in the universe.
Race, an astrobiologist who also serves on the advisory board for the Saint Mary's School of Science, spoke on "Life, Planetary Protection and Astrobiology â€“ Considering Impacts Here and Beyond."
More than the intriguing possibility of finding ET, Race outlined the technical, moral and legal challenges to finding any kind of life or its footprint elsewhere in the universe. She described the immensity of this task by citing a book she had read to her children.
Finding life in a vast universe
"If all the stars in the known universe are represented as grains of sand â€¦ it would take railroad hoppers being filled one per second, 24 hours a day for three years," Race said. "We're looking for life in just our solar system with our sun as the first grain of sand."
As daunting as that seems, we have to try, Race said. "It would be like asking Christopher Columbus when he was five days from the shore of the New World, â€˜Have you found it yet?'" It just makes sense to expect other life in a universe so vast, she noted.
But, like Columbus, space explorers not only risk their own well-being but also the safety of the life forms they encounter but may not understand.
The implications of discovery
Race's role at SETI is to consider the implications of this kind of discovery beyond our own planet. Trained as a marine biologist, her career has focused on preventing the trouble that biological hitchhikers â€“ like the European diseases that decimated Native American populations â€“ from causing trouble in new environments. She wrote her doctoral dissertation on the mud snail that hitched a ride west on the Transcontinental Railway and infested San Francisco Bay.
Race's new field, astrobiology, takes that sensibility and approach into outer space. It is a young discipline, less than 15 years old, that combines multiple other disciplines, including biology, astronomy and astrophysics, as well as philosophy, the social sciences and law. "And together we ask these questions: Where does life come from? Are we alone here? And what is the future of life in the universe â€“ our own and others?" she said.
Principles of responsible exploration
Since the earliest days of human space exploration, scientists and policymakers have thought seriously about responsible exploration, based on sound scientific practices and agreed-upon international protocols, Race said. The Outer Space Treaty was launched for signature by the United States, the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union in 1967 and had been ratified by 98 countries by 2008. Among the provisions â€“ that space exploration must be done for peaceful purposes, prohibiting weapons of mass destruction, military activity or claims by a single country on minerals and other resources. Meanwhile, scientists and engineers developed practices that would protect life in space and here at home.
"I believe we are doing responsible exploration," Race said, citing the ongoing robotic expeditions to study Mars, in which she has played a role. "We take careful control of what's called forward contamination. We don't want to introduce on Mars any terrestrial contaminants that may go with the spacecraft," she explained, while, in turn, when it's possible to bring samples back from Mars, we don't bring back biological agents that will harm our planet.
Keeping up with advancing technology
But, just as best practices and law on Earth must change to keep up with advancing technology, Race explained, so, too, must the standards devised for space exploration and the search for extraterrestrial life. However, advancements in science continue to outpace humanity's readiness for what lies ahead.
"This is where you come in," Race said. People from many disciplines and all walks of life will play a role in responsible exploration, extending human reach into space in a way that honors and protects life and strives to do no harm.