Space Ethics and Planetary Defence, with Dr Evie Kendal

In another instalment of our Spotlight video series, we showcase more of the exciting interdisciplinary research taking place at Deakin University.

Deakin researcher Dr Evie Kendal is applying her knowledge of ethics studies to the challenges of space exploration and defence from asteroids and comets. She is part of a collaboration with experts from Europe and around the world who intend to mobilise research and support for an international collaborative body for planetary defence.

The Apollo missions were the shining achievement of human spaceflight and maybe the greatest human adventure to date. Half a century on, space travel is normal. We’ve sent robotic probes to every planet in the solar system. We have had one of the greatest collaborative science experiments of all time, the International Space Station, in continuous orbit for over 20 years. Since the year 2000, there have been at least 2 people in space at any one time, while private companies are overtaking governments in their ability to launch and reuse spacecraft.

Over 560 people from 38 countries have been to space since Yuri Gagarin left the Earth’s grip in 1961. Technologies that we use in everyday life trace their origins to things developed for, and through the process of space research; from GPS, to wireless headphones, to cochlear implants.

As space becomes more normalised and accessible, human bodies will be leaving the planet at an exponential rate, creating a real need to consider the ethical implications of space travel and space research on the people involved and affected by this new era. Regardless of our future in space, there is also the ever-present threat of asteroid and comet collisions which cast a shadow over humanity’s desire to fully harness and control the world around us.

Space ethics and defending the Earth

Dr Kendal, from the Deakin School of Medicine, has a deep interest in the ethics of emerging technologies. She realises that humanity is on the cusp of ever more expansion into space as the final frontier becomes commercialised. On top of her work studying new medical technologies like artificial wombs, she has been delving into the emerging field of space ethics.

“Space ethics is just focused on what kind of ethical frameworks we want to govern our exploration and use of space … what kind of interactions should we have with the space environment? And how do we make sure that everyone benefits from the research that goes on regarding space?”

Space ethics spans many different issues, ranging from deciding who bears responsibility for any injuries or damage caused by falling space junk, to the rights of mine workers on a future asteroid colony.

One of the ethical grey areas in space research is planetary defence. As climate change becomes cemented in the public psyche as an unavoidable and existential threat, the risk of an asteroid or comet colliding with our planet can easily be consigned to the realm of remote chance, rather than inevitability. But the fact remains that the Earth is pummelled daily by around 60 tons of material, mostly in the form of minuscule specks of matter left over from the early days of the solar system.

However there is always a chance of collisions from larger objects, and even an asteroid of 30 metres or more could do great damage to a populated area. A lot of research is being put into this threat, including at NASA, ESA (the European Space Agency) and congregations such as the annual Planetary Defence Conference.

Dr Kendal says that there are complex ethical challenges involved in defending the planet from a collision, which unavoidably intersect with challenges of international politics and human rights down on the ground.

“We need to understand the physics behind something like an asteroid coming to hit us, but we also need to understand social history. If we are dealing with evacuation of one cultural group versus another, how are we actually going to do that in a sensitive way? If for example we have to deflect an asteroid and now it’s going to hit a different area of the planet, how do we make sure that that is not decided just by people who are more powerful or wealthy, to the detriment of people who perhaps don’t have the same level of power to defend their own interest? So in terms of planetary defence we want to make sure that equitable decisions are made”.

New problems raise old tensions

On top of the devastating potential of asteroids and comets, nuclear weapons have long been proposed as a possible solution for destroying or diverting a threatening rock, but as Dr Kendal explains, there are risks involved in even considering this as a solution because it may normalise their continued use.

“Do we allow countries or space agencies to start stockpiling nuclear weapons in space? That’s currently illegal. The ethical ramification of that of course is that it harms the anti-proliferation narrative that has been quite successful since World War Two. Do we want to risk the benefits of that for a potential catastrophic incident that we want to avoid?”

Dr Kendal has been collaborating with Dr Nikola Schmidt and Dr Petr Boháček, both political scientists based in the Czech Republic. They are working to create a global scientific and civilian cooperation on planetary defence, with a particular focus on deploying lasers instead of nuclear weapons. One of their goals is to expand the narrative around lasers being scientific tools for space, rather than just weapons, as Dr Schmidt explains:

“Lasers are the kind of technology which can be used for various applications including cleaning debris from Earth orbit, for interstellar travel, for interplanetary communication, for beaming energy from our orbit to Mars for example. The problem is that lasers are currently considered as a possible weapon because when you put that technology in space, some states say “hey, this is a dual use technology”, so what we think is important is that scientists begin this collaboration first, to give content and substance for the possible applications of these technologies. When we are talking about lasers we need to also develop the narrative that lasers can have these multipurpose applications and rule out these possible hostile perceptions of lasers, in order to deploy them for benign applications.”

A global collaboration

As well as advocating new technologies, Dr Schmidt and Dr Boháček are proposing a system of governance and cooperation around planetary defence which would involve cities and towns as well as nation states, scientific agencies and individuals, all under the umbrella of a Planetary Council which would direct these resources and knowledge to create policy.

“It is not possible to create globally effective solutions and policy without having it be constructed by global politics. So, our planetary council that we suggest would be governing these large technical complexes in a democratic and inclusive format that actually gives voice to everyone who is affected by a threat or by a decision, so we’re trying to incorporate this and at the same time balance it out with some epistemic authority”, Dr Boháček said.

“I think we are facing several decades that are going to be pretty important for the future of humanity and Earth in general, and if we do not figure this out – how we can come together and decide things collectively with global interests and collective interests in our mind – we’ll probably face some sort of an extinction as the dinosaurs did”.

Dr Kendal contributed her knowledge to the project by analysing the ethical implications of different planetary defence solutions and exploring how a framework and review system may be developed around planetary defence, in a similar fashion to human research ethics committees in medicine. She believes that crossing disciplinary divides is the only way to make progress when tackling such a massive issue.

“Everyone involved in that collaboration came from a different specialty, so we had political scientists, we had astrophysicists, there were obviously ethicists, but also a variety of different fields in science all coming together to achieve a single goal which was discussing a global collaboration for planetary defence. And not every author in the book that was created actually agrees with each other, which I think is even more exciting.”

Keeping an eye on the skies

All the life we know in the universe is right here. Every living thing that we can observe has evolved within the protective shell of Earth’s atmosphere. In light of this, space can seem like something which is external to us and not strictly part of our world, but really space is everything and we are part of that.

We are reminded of this every time an object strikes the planet. The object that wiped out the dinosaurs was perhaps 10km across, and there are possibly hundreds of asteroids this size which could one day pose a threat to Earth. Fortunately, asteroids of this size are quite detectable and predictable in their orbits. Much smaller objects still pose a significant threat, however. In 2013 over 1400 people were injured, mostly by broken glass, after an approximately 20 metre asteroid broke up over Russia. The concerning thing is that this object was undiscovered at the time and there are thousands of known objects this size within Earth’s neighbourhood, and possibly thousands more yet to be discovered.  

Given that the threat has such a possibility of indiscriminately affecting everyone on the planet, Dr Kendal believes that planetary defence is an excellent test case for developing codes of ethics for space in general. She argues that ethics should be central to the way we think about space, which naturally extends to the way we think about our planet too.  

“We just have that cultural obsession with space. It’s that wonderful black void that we like to stare up at and realise how insignificant our problems are on that cosmic scale … The interconnectedness of life here and the biome in the broader sense, I think really does have an influence. Our understanding of what we owe space, and what we want space to mean in future generations, will also feed back to how we treat our own planet and other life on our planet.”