This has been one of those weeks where the articles and comments I've been receiving have fallen into definite patterns, as they occasionally do, and one ofthe patterns being exhibited is space. Indeed, it has been an interesting week for space news, and I want to cover a few stories today and in some coming blogs. One of the things we've been watching here is the growth of space commercialization as private companies are now starting, particularly in the USA. The other thing we've been following are the various stories about manned missions to, and permanent human presences on, the Moon and Mars. Well, in this story shared by Ms M.W. and Mr. S.D., DARPA, the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency (or, as we like to call it following a suggestion of Mr. J.B., the Diabolically Apocalyptic Research Projects Agency), is not to be outdone, and is thinking of cheap and easy ways to terraform Mars:
Now this one is interesting in that the possibility is being taken seriously because of the recent advances in genetic editing.
“For the first time, we have the technological toolkit to transform not just hostile places here on Earth, but to go into space not just to visit, but to stay,” Alicia Jackson, deputy director of DARPA’s new Biological Technologies Office said Monday at a DARPA-hosted biotech conference. As she said this, Jackson was pointing at an artist's rendering of a terraformed Mars.
“This torrent of genomic data we’re now collecting is awesome, except they sit in databases, where they remain data, not knowledge. Very little genetic information we have is actionable,” she said. “With this, the goal is to, within a day, sequence and find where I can best engineer an organism.”
The goal is to essentially pick and choose the best genes from whatever form of life we want and to edit them into other forms of life to create something entirely new. This will probably first happen in bacteria and other microorganisms, but it sounds as though the goal may to do this with more complex, multicellular organisms in the future.
The utility of having such a capability is pretty astounding: Jackson threw out goals of eradicating vector-borne illnesses, which obviously sounds lovely and utopian. But perhaps more interesting is DARPA’s plan to use specifically engineered organisms to help repair environmental damage. Jackson said that after a natural or man-made disaster, it’d be possible to engineer new types of extremophile organisms capable of surviving in a scarred wasteland. As those organisms photosynthesized and thrived, it would naturally bring that environment back to health, she said.
And that’s where terraforming Mars comes in. With enough practice turning Earth’s damaged landscapes back into places hospitable for life, Jackson thinks we’ll have what it takes to eventually try to colonize the solar system. This is something that obviously doesn’t even really have a timeline, it’s technology that’s in its infancy, and much of the work being done is classified—but the implications are exciting nonetheless. (Emphasis added)
It's that last component that disturbs, of course, for a capability to terraform Mars is, as the article implies, a technology to terraform the Earth. In a week which has seen the Papal encyclical with its Malthusian agenda and, as former Assistant Secretary of HUD Catherine Austine Fitts has pointed out, little by way of any practical solutions, the DARPA announcement is a reminder that technology may yet open up new lands for agricultural production.
Or not... for such technologies assume we have sufficient wisdom to engineer things on a planetary scale. We certainly have the capability, but do we have the wisdom? The implication in the article is that the work is already being done, on a classified experimental basis. "Test it on Earth first, then on Mars, then on Mars," it says. But now consider the high octane speculation: assume the existence of advanced and exotic propulsion technologies and space probes able to utilize them, and the experimental field opens up considerably, and it is there that one begins to wonder: what if such experiments are already being conducted off-planet? We've all seen and read about the stories of methane gassing on Mars, which many suspect to be signs of some form of primitive life-form on that planet. The assumption within the alternative community is that this may represent a form of life native to Mars. But what if it isn't? And while you're considering that high octane speculation, consider another: what if those genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are already patented? That would throw the whole space commercialization meme into yet another area where space law is going to have to deal with some tough issues. And such a step will inevitably provoke responses from the other space power, Russia, China, Europe, India, Japan. So, a prediction: If you see the BRICSA nations, the European Space Agency, or Japan, pressing for "terraforming" conventions for space, this may indicate that they already suspect something is up.
See you on the flip side...