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With the recent announcement of a large subsurface lake on Mars, ongoing investigations of the oceans of Europa and Enceladus (complete with shooting geysers!), the discovery of exoplanets numbering in the thousands and the $100 million Breakthrough Listen SETI program well underway, the paradigm-shattering discovery of life beyond Earth could be made any day. NASA is showing renewed interest in SETI (it is sponsoring a meeting on technosignatures in September), and a few intrepid organizations such as METI International are actually sending messages to the stars (METI stands for “messaging extraterrestrial intelligence).

In recent months both Breakthrough Listen and the SETI Institute have sponsored both real and virtual meetings to examine the societal impact should their programs prove successful. Anthropologists, historians, ethicists, philosophers and others are joining the interdisciplinary conversation in a serious way, impelled by the increasing possibility of discovery.

All of this activity gives new urgency to a whole series of ethical questions. Does Mars belong to the Martians, even if the Martians are only microbes? What do we say in response to an alien message, and who speaks for Earth? How do we treat aliens, either remotely or in a “close encounter of the third kind”? In short, whether we discover alien microbes or advanced alien life, we will immediately be faced with the problem of how to interact. Welcome to the world of astroethics—the contemplation and development of ethical standards for a variety of outer space issues, including terraforming the planets, resource utilization, near-Earth asteroid threats, space exploration, planetary protection—and the discovery of extraterrestrial life.

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