Can the solar system become polluted?

The image is not of the Vesta asteroid. There weren’t any good false-color images of Vesta, so I used Eros instead.

So, the Dawn spacecraft is going through its warm-up routine on its way to Vesta and then on to Ceres. I am pretty excited to see the images that it sends back. The asteroid belt is one of the least studied regions of our solar system and there’s really no telling what might be there.

One can only imagine what could possibly be harvested from them. Both in knowledge and resources. So the question is, assuming the technology can be developed to exploit natural resources in asteroids and on other planets (say, Mars) what would our responsibility be with respect to environmental concerns. Certainly the safety and health of workers would be vital. Space is pretty harsh and unforgiving. But what about, say, emissions? Is there any concern whatsoever that venting noxious fumes into space could ever become a problem?

The reason I wonder is the fact that in the early twentieth century, when gasoline was pennies for the gallon and largely unregulated (they put lead in the stuff), we had no idea what the possible ramifications that massive use of fossil fuels might be. And of course, there are still holdouts. The thing of it is, it still took a long time before people realized the possible problems associated with it. 1975 was the first year that catalytic converters were installed in motor vehicles on a regular basis. And it wasn’t until the nineties before the trend of global warming was even noticed.

And so the question: what are our environmental responsibilities when it comes to outer space? I use the Koch Brothers as a prime example of environmental irresponsibility, but they are not the only major offenders. The first consideration would be size. Space is a hell of a lot bigger than our atmosphere. If we were to pump out billions of tons of CO2 directly into the the deep of space, it would disperse pretty quickly and become nearly undetectable in very short order. But does this fact absolve us of responsibility?

We know that the immediate area around our planet has become pretty crowded with like a bajillion satellites and the odd space station. Indeed, it is increasingly becoming a problem.

But when it comes to space as a whole? I mean, the Earth itself (and the space around it) could fit inside the sun about a million times. The distance between the Earth and the sun is like 198 million miles. We are talking about unimaginably vast distances just in our own stellar neighborhood. At first glance, it seems perfectly reasonable to say that our insignificant species cannot possibly fill that up with pollution.

However, the universe being what it is, it is nearly impossible to predict the future. We cannot predict with any reasonable amount of certainty what sorts of technology might be developed. What sorts of knowledge we might uncover. Let’s say, for instance, that a real warp drive technology were developed. It’s not that far-fetched. Indeed, it’s theoretically possible. Developments are being made all the time when it comes to methods of warping space. At least for very small particles.

But what if the theory could be made reality on a larger scale. We have no idea what the result of common usage of such technology might be. Space is elastic, we know, but the elastic bands on any pair of boxer shorts eventually wears out. We don’t know if the same is true of space’s elasticity.

And then, perhaps we might consider the remote possibility that humans manage to harness a realistic and affordable form of faster-than-light travel and begin to colonize solar systems other than our own. Let’s say we find earth-like, habitable planets out there and begin to build cities on them. These planets would not be our home and we would, for all intents and purposes, be defined as an invasive species. What are our responsibilities when it comes to environmental concerns on extraterrestrial colonies where there is actually an ecosystem.

Space might be too big for us to affect in any real way, but we have shown that we are very good at changing the face of a single planet. What sorts of aliens are we likely to be? Are we the peaceful aliens who expand and inhabit but do not destroy, like in Star Trek? Or are we the destroyers, using resources and casting entire worlds aside as soon as they are spent, like in Independence Day?

Guten Tag.