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Where Is Everybody?

| by Ruwantissa Abeyratne

( October 9, 2014, Montreal, Sri Lanka Guardian) Recently, astronomers of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced that it is highly unlikely we're alone in the universe, and that over the next two decades we could well discover alien life. Statistically this might well be credible as, according to Tim Urbin, "as many stars as there are in our galaxy (100 – 400 billion), there are roughly an equal number of galaxies in the observable universe—so for every star in the colossal Milky Way, there’s a whole galaxy out there. All together, that comes out to the typically quoted range of between 1022 and 1024 total stars, which means that for every grain of sand on Earth, there are 10,000 stars out there".

This is perhaps why physicist Enrico Fermi asked the question in the early '50s: "where is everybody?"

Image courtesy: www.billboard.com

Eminent McGill University professor Joe Schwarcz, writing in the Montreal Gazette last week said: " Fermi suggested that in a galaxy with innumerable stars that are billions of years older than our sun, there surely must be some planets that have, or have had, conditions suitable for the development of intelligent life. Even if these civilizations had no more advanced technology than ours, some signal of their existence should have been spotted. None has, and so we have the “Fermi paradox.” Of course there are claims that not only have we been visited by aliens, we have even interacted with them, apparently not always in an amiable fashion. But there is no convincing evidence of such encounters".

Stephen Hawking - one of the world’s most eminent and knowledgeable physicists – has stated that in a universe with 100 billion galaxies, each containing hundreds of millions of stars, it is unlikely that life forms are present only on Earth. Hawking has also said: To my mathematical brain, the numbers alone make thinking about aliens perfectly rational… the real challenge is working out what aliens might actually be like... I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonize whatever planets they can reach".

Perhaps we had better get ready.

Hostile or no, the poor aliens, if they should ever enter the hallowed atmosphere of Earth, will surely encounter the devious and duplicitous snakes in suits, sycophants, hedge fund managers, lawyers, politicians and their stooges, all aiming at making a fast buck at their expense. In a thought provoking commentary in the Journal of Space Law, Marcia S. Smith envisions that if life were to be found in outer space the ensuing conduct of human kind would be more an ethical issue. Any inquiry into life in outer space has to take into account both vegetation as well as intelligent life. In both instances the main consideration would be how we could protect such life forms and use them for the benefit of human kind. The central theme of space exploration would incontrovertibly be international cooperation and abstinence from the use of force, which collectively form the cornerstone of space exploration from a legal standpoint.

Ms. Smith asks the pertinent questions: “Do we send more probes to further investigate and do we have a responsibility to protect that life and allow it to develop naturally? If robotic probes definitively find life, should we erect a “do not disturb sign” and refrain from sending further probes?” Then again, what if we were to find intelligent life forms closer to the human form and not mere vegetation? Could we exercise control over the welfare of such life and who would claim that control?

While these questions would have to be asked and answered at one point or another, the more immediate issue would be what we would do on Earth to cope with the new exigency.

One of the corollaries to finding life in outer space would be the issue of how we would use such a discovery in the context of the prevailing environment of international relations. In this context international politics within the umbrella of the United Nations and the United Nations Charter may become extremely relevant. It is not unrealistic to envision that the discovery of life in outer space could spark a discourse on interests and a renewed initiative to revisit international treaties to ensure the peaceful uses of outer space while at the same time ensuring some degree of control on the use of life so discovered.

At the 79th Plenary Meeting of its Sixty first Session, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 61/111 which, inter alia, expresses serious concern of the General Assembly about the possibility of an arms race in outer space and urges all States, in particular those with major space capabilities, to contribute actively to the goal of preventing an arms race in outer space as an essential condition for the promotion of international cooperation in the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes. Doubtless, such a threat would prove to be more real and ominous if life in outer space were to be discovered.

The General Assembly also agreed that a panel of space exploration activities, including the participation of the private sector should be convened during the fiftieth session of the United Nations Committee for the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCUPUOS). Perhaps the most noteworthy of the Assembly’s observations as recorded in the Resolution is that the recommendations of UNISPACE III could be integrated into the work programme of the Office of Outer Space Affairs and that UNCUPUOS could consider these recommendations for implementation. UNISPACE III is the genesis of the Vienna Declaration which, inter alia espouses the protection of the outer space environment.

Although the title of this article is purely conjectural, its intent and purpose - in the eventuality of the occurrence suggested therein becoming real - bring to bear the need to reflect on principles of human conduct and liability prescribed by existing legal norms and ethical considerations with regard to the treatment of life. American geneticist Joshua Lederberg introduced to the world the science of exobiology (or astrobiology) - a branch of biology which deals with the search for extraterrestrial life, especially intelligent life, outside the solar system. Although remote astronomical observations of a planet or other celestial body provide information about its physical environment, the determination of the presence of life on these bodies is more difficult. Exobiological techniques are designed to detect life forms, artefacts produced by intelligent life, waste products of metabolic reactions, remnants of former life, pre-biological molecules that may reflect early evolutionary stages or substances such as carbon or combination of hydrogen and oxygen forming water that are necessary for the sustenance of life as it is experienced on Earth.

Space law is grounded on the principle that outer space is the common heritage of mankind and that no State or individual can therefore claim rights in rem to any portion of outer space. Air law, on the other hand, is firmly entrenched in the principle of sovereignty of States, so that a State may lay claims to rights over the airspace above its territory. This essentially means that while the implementation of air law is heavily influenced by municipal law, space law is solely grounded on legal principles binding on the community of nations. Principles of public international law therefore play an exclusive part in the application of space law principles.

We have to be mindful of a few fundamental truths. First, if we come across any form of life in outer space it will be the concern of all humankind. Second, any treatment of such life, irrespective of the fact that it is found in outer space, should be according to the principles of international law and the United Nations Charter, which contains numerous provisions which are relevant to the use of force. Several General Assembly resolutions, adopted without dissent or with near unanimity, have restated, amplified and clarified the meaning of these Charter provisions. Possibly, the most relevant and authoritative is the 1970 Declaration on Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Co-operation Among States in Accordance with the Charter of the United Nations (Friendly Relations Declaration). Although some dispute exists in regard to the precise legal status of the Friendly Relations Declaration, it is generally regarded as an authoritative interpretation of broad principles of inter­national law expressed in the Charter.

At the Lorne Trottier Lectures of McGill University held on 6 and 7 October in Montreal, it was noted that "now for the first time in human history, current technology puts us on the verge of being able to search for planets like Earth that may have suitable conditions for life. Astronomers hope to not only discover planets like Earth, but observe their atmospheres for gases that may have been produced by life".

We had better be ready.

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