© 2015 Eleanor K. Sommer

As the European Space Agency attempts to wake up the Philae lander, it might be time to take stock of just how much junk Earthlings have hurled into outer space.

Homo sapiens have thrived on this planet a mere 200,000 years compared to the first lifeforms that appeared and evolved for 5 billion years. Yet in our comparatively short existence, we have managed to transform the planet and likely cause the extinction of species.

Not satisfied with destroying our home world, we have begun the devastation of outer space as well: crashing spacecraft into planets, abandoning our mechanical detritus on moons, hitching exploration vehicles to asteroids, and cramming satellites into near-space orbit.

Humans have a propensity for littering. In addition to roadside trash, beer cans in pristine wilderness areas, teeming plastic gyres in the Pacific Ocean, and litter on the tops of mountains, we have found a new environment to assault: outer space. If the universe had intergalactic law enforcement, Planet Earth, a speck of dust in an unremarkable galaxy in the backwaters of a vast and mysterious universe, might get slapped with a cosmic littering fine.

Look no further than the recent crash landing of Messenger on Mercury. Well, okay, the spacecraft incinerated on entry—but the point is that we seem to have little respect for planetary systems, considering them only vast storehouses of resources and mysterious place to be poked, prodded, and ultimately conquered. Our species has launched 500 objects into deep space or landed on planets and moons, and sent 1,253 satellites whizzing around our own planet.

In November 2014, we dumped a washing machine sized probe onto a comet that at the time was more than 300 million miles from Earth, moving at 84,000 mph. Hello universe! The litterbugs have landed.

Sure, the comet landing was an awesome accomplishment—the culmination of decades of research and labor and the cooperation of nations and private and public sectors, sponsored and coordinated by the European Space Agency (ESA). The world breathlessly watched as the lander Philae awkwardly bumped and bounced onto comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, while its the parent spaceship, Rosetta, recorded from a distance. Comet 67P, with Rosetta trailing nearby, continues its six-and-a half-year orbit around the sun, getting as close as 186 million kilometers (about 115 million miles) in August 2015. Philae, which is wedged precariously in a crevice on the comet, may not survive the journey, as it was not able to anchor itself properly to the comet.

In May, as the comet nears the sun, ESA hopes that Philae will wake up after recharging its solar batteries, and check in. So far, Rosetta has not been able to spot the lander on the comet. And if it toppled off 67P, Philae may become just another piece of space junk that we have ejected into an ecological system we know little about.

This is no big deal for some people. Even when I inquired of Christopher Stone, the author of the seminal 1972 essay, “Do Trees Have Standing.” Back then, Stone explored the thorny issue of whether or not trees (and mountains) have rights exclusive of their relationships with human beings. Additionally, in a 1996 work, he pondered more deeply the rights of landscapes and commons. Yet, he was not sure how to consider what rights might be assigned in the vastness of outer space.

“Thinking of planets and other celestial bodies—trillions and trillions—would the obliterating of one be more onerous than squashing a one of a trillion terrestrial termites?” Good question. But on the other hand, he wrote in an email exchange, “suppose astronauts on a celestial body come across a totally unique life form lacking consciousness or interests: would there be a moral tug in favor of not stepping on it—or eating it?”

It may be worth exploring these ideas before it is too late. There have been plenty of writers and scholars who have called for the preservation of outer space, including Ryder Miller (“Astroenviornmentalism: The Case for Space Exploration as an Environmental Issue) and others, such as Bernard K. Schafer who in 1996 wrote that outer space “deserves to be preserved in its original pristine state, for its own sake and for future generations to enjoy."

Pragmatists, however, eschew environmental concerns and consider moons, planets, asteroids, and comets resources to meet the needs and demands of the accelerating Earth population. Lawyers and scholars,

Dominic Basulto, for instance, writing in the Washington Post proposed, “If America doesn’t go back to the moon and eventually establish a permanent lunar base there, someone else will. And whichever country is most active in moon exploration will have the biggest say in the moon’s future development.”

And free-market organizations such as the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) look with disdain at those who consider environmental values for outer space. In a comprehensive 2007 article in the Memphis Law Review, Walter Block, a former intern at FEE, and Jacob Huebert, professor of economics at Loyola University in New Orleans, wrote that industrial use, mining, and even disposal of Earth’s nuclear waste trump preservation. They disregard intrinsic value of space, and assume that a “rational” majority are “anthropocentrists or at least moderate ecocentrists who do not favor the human race's demise over and above any disturbance of the rocks of the solar system.”

In discussing the future of space exploration, these authors write that environmental issues need only be considered in relationship to property rights and health and safety of humans. Other than those concerns, planets should be carved up for consumption or for colonies, and problems such as air or water pollution matters of property rights and not environmental protection—because fouling someone’s air supply would be considered invasion. In these scholars’ minds, the inhospitable nature of extraterrestrial landscapes and the toxic or nonexistent atmospheres preclude planets, moon, and asteroids from any sort of protection. They sum this up succinctly, “The reality is that virtually nothing human beings could do to the solar system could likely make it less livable or less useful than it is now.”

And there are those argue that exploiting the bounty of the universe might improve life here on Earth. Science fiction is rife with stories of off-world manufacturing and mining, leaving Earth to be restored to Eden. And Block and Huebert believe this possibility should be a reason for environmentalists to celebrate.

But what about the life on other planets? Even microscopic lifeforms? Consider extremophiles here on Earth. Such lifeforms have been discovered in the most unlikely locations: hot hydrothermal vents where bacteria can survive at temperatures in excess of 100 degrees Celsius (212 degrees Fahrenheit) under the right conditions; bacterial spores can be hardened to radiation; even the cold, dark lakes under Antarctica support life.

So, can space be considered an ecological system even if we have yet to discover life there? Ernst Haeckel described ecology as the study of the relationships between organisms and their environments. And while scholars such at E. P. Odum, T. F. H. Allen, and T. W. Hoekstra have varying definitions for ecosystems, the common thread is relationships of biotic and abiotic elements and flow of energy. Without discovery of lifeforms, outer space environmentalists may be hard pressed to argue for conservation beyond aesthetics and geological history.

While we have not littered deep space to any great degree considering its infinite vastness, NASA estimates that there are 500,000 pieces of space junk orbiting the Earth—20,000 of them the size of baseballs. And like the plastics bits teaming in Earth’s oceans (recently estimated at more than 5 trillion), there are the millions of tiny particles, such as paint flecks suspended in near orbit around our planet.

Human beings have a largely precarious relationship with nature—first fearing and fighting it, then conquering and mastering it, and finally exploiting and polluting it. Only lately have we come to realize that centuries of unfortunate exploitations have had devastating consequences for nature—some irreversible and some dangerous to humans as well. We still lack the will, and in some cases the ability, to curtail pollution and clean up what damage we have done, yet we are boldly flying off into new environments with the hubris of Old World explorers as they plundered previously unknown nations and ecosystems. We are taking our bad habits, where no Earthling has gone before.

While this bothers some people, discussion about the governance of outer space mainly concerns the value of the space commons, legal claims of the exploring nations, property rights, economic equality, and warfare. Basically, how to best divvy up the spoils: mining rights to asteroids rich in minerals or ownership of land for habitat-building rights on far-flung planets and moons. Some consideration has been given to if and how poorer nations might benefit from the universe’s bounty.

Like the deep seabed and Antarctica, space is part of the global commons and is the subject of a body of law covering terra nullius—land belonging to no one. Treaties are devised to preclude conflicts of ownership and to determine how such lands are best utilized for the good of all. But Bo Min Kim, writing for the Korean Institute for International Economic Policy, noted that as of 2014 only 16 nations, none of which have significant space travel capabilities, had ratified the 1979 Moon Treaty. The United States is not one of them. Regardless, this treaty, like its predecessor the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, does not approach environmental protection for the cosmos.

In early 2014, Frank Rose, the deputy assistance secretary of the arms control division of the U.S. State Department told his audience at the Manila Observatory in the Philippines about the importance of governing the space commons, with emphasis on safety and security but nary a word about the environment. Although, Rose talked about the astounding debris problem documented by NASA, it was only in terms of potential damage to spacecraft or human life.

NASA actually has an Office of Planetary Protection, the stated mission of which is “to promote the responsible exploration of the solar system by implementing and developing efforts that protect the science, explored environments, and Earth.” Little, however, has been written about the ecological value of outer space or about protection of an ecosystem that human beings would be hard pressed to restore if we inadvertently (or intentionally) destroy or degrade parts of it.

In a 2010 Discovery.com blog Ray Villard wrote about outcry after the crash landing of a rocket booster into the Moon’s south pole. This experiment was supposed to reveal if there were any ice crystals, part of the constant search for water in outer space, a necessary component for colonization. Villard paraphrased the public sentiment this way: “a direct attack from Earth” and a “despoiling of the pristine lunar environment.”

But this is certainly not the first time we have sent stuff to moon and not cleaned up after ourselves. The Union of Concerned Scientists reports 97 Earth objects residing on the lunar surface and 169 probes on other moons and planets in the solar system. We have lots of other satellites floating around the vastness of space; for instance more than 200 objects orbiting sun, 6 orbiting Venus, and 14 orbiting Mars. And we have, so far, sent 8 objects outside the solar system.

So far we know about life on one planet: Earth. No other planet supports life within a reasonable distance from this one—at least not without extreme terraforming and supply lines with extraordinarily long delivery times. Yet, we continue to pollute and exploit our home, and possibly change the chemistry so drastically with greenhouse gases that our future here could be uncertain.

If humans must consider the universe an enormous storehouse of mineral wealth and raw materials, we should at least do it with conscience and foresight. We might listen to scholars who suggest that our exploration be predicated on better ethical values than we have historically demonstrated on our own planet. Just as Christopher Stone contemplated the rights of trees and mountains, we must now consider the rights of an infinite universe and decide with what justification we crash land our technology on pristine landscapes.

One of our deep space probes has already crossed into the frontier outside the sun’s gravitational influence, where it might encounter life in the great expanse of space. We might discover that we are playing in someone else’s backyard and that they have environmental rules. In the meantime, the Philae lander can be thought of as an artifact of a maturing society with a passion for exploration, or as a piece of trash wedged into a crevice on a cosmic boulder.