We’ve already been warned by such books as War of the Worlds and The Day of the Triffids – so how do we protect our terrestrial borders from alien invaders?
As the world rockets onwards in the space age, experts warn that we need greater recognition of biosecurity risks from alien organisms. While the risk is low, they say, it isn’t impossible.
In a report published in BioScience, Associate Professor Phill Cassey, a biosecurity expert from the University of Adelaide, and colleagues argue that collaboration between astrobiologists, invasion biologists and policy makers is necessary to build a framework that protects Earth from potential interplanetary contamination.
“In addition to government-led space missions, the arrival of private companies such as SpaceX has meant there are now more players in space exploration than ever before,” says Cassey.
“We need to take action now to mitigate those risks. Risks that have low probability of occurrence, but have the potential for extreme consequences, are at the heart of biosecurity management.
“Because when things go wrong, they go really wrong.”
Alien invaders from Mars?
These invaders might not look like ET, but as we search Mars and the rest of our Solar System for signs of life, there is the potential for microscopic organisms to make their way back to Earth.
The drive to settle Mars could have the opposite effect – where Earthen bacteria hitch-hike across the Solar System and devastate the Martian locals (if there are any).
It wouldn’t be the first time humans have accidentally transported an invasive species to a remote location with destructive consequences.
Ask the invasion scientists
But the good thing is we can learn from those experiences and apply ‘invasion science’ – an area that deals with the causes and consequences of invasive species – to come up with regulations about how we prevent this from happening.
“It is far cheaper to prevent biological contamination by implementing protocols on Earth than it is on Mars, for example,” says Cassey.
Australia happens to be in an excellent position to deliver insight because we are a large and isolated island that has developed a strong expertise in this area. Without Dr Who to save us, we might need to rely on Aussie invasion scientists instead.
“We have a fantastic opportunity to contribute to international policy and to develop biosecurity mitigation measures that can be used by the expanding private space industry,” says co-author Dr Andrew Woolnough, of the universities of Melbourne and Adelaide. “This is an untapped economic development opportunity.”
Despite the risk, invasion biologists have yet to be included in the Committee on Space Research Planetary Protection planning. Without their valuable expertise, who knows whether we will keep the alien organisms away?
Deborah Devis is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a Bachelor of Liberal Arts and Science (Honours) in biology and philosophy from the University of Sydney, and a PhD in plant molecular genetics from the University of Adelaide.
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