Pathfinders – Ad Astra

What with rocketing bills, mortgages, interest rates and general life stress, most people last month very likely paid no attention to the fact that the European Space Agency launched a satellite to visit the planetary system of Jupiter (

The assembled scientists and officials all jumped up and down and hugged each other as the Juice satellite launched successfully and later phoned home to say it had unfurled its 98 square yards of solar panels. They were obviously pleased that their collective investment of time, effort and £1.4bn had not blown up. ‘But I do have to remind everyone, there’s still a long way to go’, the ESA Director General pointed out. Well indeed. Jupiter is a long way, especially for a craft with only the power of a domestic microwave oven, and which has to travel by an extremely circuitous 8.5-year and 4.1 billion-mile route around the inner planets before being slung out to the gas giant in 2031.

But it’s not the gas giant itself that they’re interested in. The Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer (Juice) is off to take a close look at Jupiter’s moons, specifically Europa, Callisto and Ganymede, the three little buggers that got Galileo into such bad odour with the Church back in 1610. If there’s life anywhere out there in the solar system, scientists think, it’s likely to be beneath the icy crusts of these moons. Juice is just the first step. Nasa is sending its Clipper satellite to Europa next year. After that there’s the question of a lander, and lastly something that’s capable of drilling through perhaps tens of miles of ice crust. Below that ice, Europa is believed to have an ocean 60 miles deep, ten times the depth of any ocean on Earth, despite only being one quarter its size. That means a relatively small rocky core that could be easily squeezed, scrunched and heated by the massive gravity of Jupiter, with the possibility of volcanic vents generating a rich chemical soup that might be the origin of life, as they are thought to have been on Earth.

There’s a lot of ‘mights’ and ‘perhapses’ in that paragraph, as there will be with any leading-edge scientific endeavour. What would it mean to find living organisms on one of these moons? In one sense, not a lot. It would make no difference to people’s lives on Earth, beyond being an interesting talking point in pubs or over dinner. Nobody is hoping for anything more than amino acids or micro-organisms at best, and certainly not little green frogmen or intelligent squid. But still, it would be the greatest scientific discovery of all time, proof that life on Earth wasn’t some singular anomaly in the universe, and strong evidence that, as most scientists already assume, our galaxy must be teeming with life. If you can find two separate instances of life orbiting one star in a galaxy containing 100 billion stars, and in a universe now thought to contain of up to 20 trillion galaxies, the concept of extraterrestrial zoology becomes a no-brainer.

All that would surely change humanity’s perception of itself in the cosmos. Instead of ‘us and them’ meaning competing nationalities, ethnic groups, gender identities or even warring social classes, we could have a sense of terrestrial unity for the first time, ‘us’ being all life on Earth, and ‘them’ being all life on other planets.

But before we get too starry-eyed and visionary, there is the ugly fact that we still live in capitalism, an astoundingly divisive and destructive economic system in which most humans are reduced to virtual slavery in the service of a rich and idle super-elite, and which relentlessly exploits global resources even at the risk of turning the planet into a toxic lifeless desert. Never mind what we humans think or feel about the cosmos, what does the logic of our present social system dictate?

The logic of capitalism is to exploit for profit whatever it can get its hands on. If it can get its hands on life on other moons or planets, it will treat it with the same wanton rapaciousness as it treats everything on Earth.

Humans will try to prevent it, of course. There will be moratoriums, new Outer Space Treaties, and an agreed respect for the ‘rights’ of extraterrestrial organisms. But if the potential for profit exists, the moratoriums will be ignored, the treaties broken, the respect disregarded. By hook or by crook, capitalist logic will be exported, virus-like, to new worlds and virgin environments to wreak its mindless havoc.

We have to stop that from happening, before any potential micro-organism is discovered on Europa or Ganymede. Humans on Earth must first put their own house in order. We have a responsibility, as intelligent custodians of our planet, to make sure that the destructive behaviour of our present class-divided society can never infect any other planet. We need to turn our social system upside down, and learn to operate sustainably as an egalitarian global community that collectively and sensibly manages its planetary resources, where things are made for direct use and not to be sold as commodities in a money system, and where the future belongs to all humanity instead of being slowly strangled by a parasitical property-owning elite. The only alternative to a money system is a non-money system. The only alternative to capitalism is post-capitalist common ownership. It’s not just a starry-eyed ambition, it’s a real scientific necessity. As Carl Sagan famously said, ‘If we are willing to contemplate nuclear war and the wholesale destruction of our emerging global society, should we not also be willing to contemplate a wholesale restructuring of our societies?’ The time to launch that restructuring is right now, before we launch any more spaceships.


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