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This post is a series of shallow dives into areas where space and existential risk intersect, and should serve as a starting point for EAs interested in space and existential risk. 


Asteroid impacts

Fin has summarised the risks from asteroid impacts very well here. The response of the space community to this threat has been impressive, to such an extent that this mighty threat is now essentially negligible in 2023. This has been achieved by detecting and cataloguing large (>1km in diameter) near-Earth asteroids (NEAs) and launching missions to test the feasibility of asteroid deflection.

As of September 2023, 859 out of an estimated 909 asteroids larger than 1km diameter have been identified. The NEOWISE mission is currently picking up the stragglers, and all NEAs should be discovered by 2046 - this target seems realistic and achievable and is based on a very good track record from this community. Many small asteroids (<140 meters) are still yet to be discovered, but they do not pose an existential threat.


NASA demonstrated their ability to deflect asteroids by crashing the DART mission into an asteroid and measuring the change in the asteroid's orbit around its parent asteroid. A follow-up mission is planned to investigate the crater left by the DART mission and to understand the impact of the asteroid's composition on the deflection mission. Missions from Japan and the USA to return samples from asteroids also help (Hayabusa2 from Japan and OSIRIS-Rex from NASA) to better predict the composition of incoming asteroids before launching deflection missions, as an asteroid's composition significantly impacts its deflectibility

Space agencies representing all major great powers meet regularly to discuss the threat of asteroid impacts in an organisation called the SMPAG.  

In summary, all is looking well managed here, with just the "mopping up" work to be completed. Large impacts originating from outside our solar system, such as rogue planets, are still possible and unconstrained in probability, but there wouldn't be much we could do in such an event anyway. The potential impact of pursuing a career in this area now is probably very limited, but it stands as an inspiring success story for existential risk reduction, with a lot to learn from. 

Great Power Conflict and Collaboration

From this post on great power conflict:

Economic growth and technological progress have bolstered the arsenals of the world’s most powerful countries. That means the next war between them could be far worse than World War II, the deadliest conflict humanity has yet experienced.

So boosting mechanisms that decrease the probability of a great power conflict is very important. 

Hostility between Russia and the USA, China and the USA, and China and India, is increasing. However, the space sector seems to be pushing back. Many international space organisations exist that bring all great powers. For example, the Space Mission Planning and Advisory Group (SMPAG) meets regularly to discuss the threat of asteroid impacts. Space agencies representing Russia, the USA, China, India, Ukraine, Israel, Europe, and many others are all members, and most attend meetings regularly. This is similarly true of many other organisations such as UNOOSA, SGAC, ISECG, and UNCOPUOUS. Building on and learning from this international collaboration to foster international cooperation on tackling x-risks like AI and biotech could be tractable.

But these organisations also reduce the probability of great power conflict more generally. For example, despite Russia's recent invasion of Ukraine, the USA and Russia continue to collaborate on the International Space Station. This is a powerful signal that builds trust and may help smooth diplomatic relations between these great powers.

Other areas are less clear. Determining if the space industry can foster a level of interdependence that deters nations from engaging in warfare is challenging. Recent examples suggest not. For example, the European Space Agency planned to launch a rover (ExoMars) to Mars on a Russian rocket. However, due to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, it was ousted from the mission, and ExoMars has been shelved until 2028. It is unlikely that a rover mission played a huge role in Putin's decision to invade Ukraine. 

 Concerningly, areas in space like the moon and the cislunar domain are strategic territories that may open up new avenues for conflict between great powers. The US-China Economic and Security Review Commission recently advised the US Congress that China was planning "to control access to the moon for strategic aims". Additionally, DARPA (overseen by the US Security Council) has been funding various projects involved in development on the moon, see LunA-10 and NOM4D. Both countries claim that their space projects are for peaceful purposes, and that's probably true... but these projects definitely wouldn't hurt if there was a conflict over space territories. Ensuring that stronger policy is in place to prevent conflict over strategic territories in space is needed, but historically very challenging to pull off. 

Nuclear War 

The space community can work on reducing the risk of nuclear war directly by employing the immense power of earth observation satellites. The development and testing of nuclear weapons technologies are easily monitored from space through various methods, including direct imagery (searching for craters from testing or by monitoring facilities), detecting spectral signatures of uranium activity, and detecting radiation. 

Additionally, satellites are able to generate robust missile detection systems. The US Air Force uses Defense Support Program (DSP) satellites, which play a key role in the detection of missile launches, space launches, and nuclear detonations. These satellites help deter the use of nuclear weapons by ensuring that countries have sufficient time to retaliate before being hit by nuclear weapons. Additionally, robust detection systems prevent detection errors, which have already nearly caused nuclear war on multiple occasions

Defense Support Program (DSP) | Missile Threat

An image of a DSP satellite monitoring for missile launches, space launches, and nuclear detonations. 

Similarly to asteroid deflection, technology in this area is extremely advanced and (with the USA's extraordinary military budget) is not neglected. So, working directly on these technologies in the space sector is unlikely to have a large impact unless you have very specific expertise. Instead, leveraging these technologies and data to implement policy changes and scrutinise the proliferation of nuclear weapons is likely to be where the impact lies. 

Climate Change

Climate change is a potential contributor to existential risk, and the space community is a leading community in the fight against climate change. The ways that the space community tackles issues relating to climate change are vast:

  • Earth Observation. This is the biggest and most obvious impact of the space community on climate change. Satellites monitor sea level rise, emissions, destruction of natural ecosystems, temperature, climate etc. This data is so essential for implementing measures to prevent impacts and create new policies. 
  • Planetary Science. By researching other planets, we can understand our own better. For example, Venus is 475 degrees celsius at the surface; this is due to a runaway greenhouse effect, which would be an existential threat if it were to happen on Earth. It won't. Not for a billion years at least. But it warned us of the power of positive feedback loops to cause large and unexpected temperature increases e.g. the release of CO2 from permafrost. 
  • Sustainability and spin-off technologies. The harsh resource-limited void of space encourages engineers to invent new technologies for sustainable living, such as solar cells. These technologies bleed down into society. I'd suggest taking some time to check out NASA spinoffs: https://spinoff.nasa.gov/ 

The space sector is an extremely valuable resource for technology to monitor and adapt to climate change, and will inevitably support EAs working on climate change. 


Conclusions from astrobiology are important for inspiring action towards tackling existential risks:

  1. Research conclusion: The universe and our Solar System are full of habitable celestial bodies. Moral implication: The number of potential future humans is huge in the long term future, so we ought to protect these people through research into existential risks. 
  2. Research conclusion: The universe seems to be empty of life. Moral Implication: Life on Earth is extremely valuable, so ensuring its survival should be the highest moral priority.
  3. Research conclusion: Planets like Earth are extremely rare and far away. Moral implication: "there is no planet B" - we ought to protect our Earth for the next ~1000 years as there is no backup plan 

Other philosophical implications from space come mainly from perspective shifts. There's a cool thing called the 'overview effect', where people who have travelled to the moon or the ISS and looked back on Earth have described a feeling of unity with all life on Earth. Famous images from space like 'Earthrise' or 'the pale blue dot' offers similar perspective shifts, helping people to see the bigger picture. 

EarthSky | Apollo 8 Earthrise photo anniversary, December 24

Earthrise. Taken from the moon, the image shows Earth rising from the moon's surface.

Voyager 1's Pale Blue Dot | NASA Solar System Exploration

Taken by the voyager 1 probe, the famous 'pale blue dot' image shows Earth as a tiny dot in the distance. If this can't help people see the bigger picture and the insignificance of our Earthly squabbles, I don't know what can.

NASA is able to share these images with the world, inspiring many people to pursue careers that take into account the bigger picture. 

Planetary Protection

The space community plans to return samples from Mars in 2026. Some have warned of the threat of returning potential alien life back to Earth. Similar to the release of ancient pathogens from melting permafrost, our human biology will be presented with an unknown organism that could cause a pandemic. The likelihood seems extremely low. Nevertheless, the prevention of contamination will be taken very seriously, with a purpose-built facility being constructed to house the samples from Mars and prevent any contamination to the surrounding area. 

Cosmic threats

Cosmic threats are numerous and often under-researched, but in general they are extremely low probability events with a high potential to destroy everything. Solar flares, supernovae, gamma-ray bursts, and asteroids could severely damage technology and infrastructure. Though unlikely in the next 100 years, effects may be devastating. Intelligent alien life or self-replicating alien technology could potentially lead to human extinction, but probabilities are essentially unknown. Cosmic phenomena like vacuum decay, magnetar flares, and explosions from the Galactic core are severe but speculative threats.

New cosmic threats are frequently being discovered, so continued research and observation are warranted, even if probabilities are very low currently. Some known events like the Sun's increasing luminosity pose long-term existential threats.

Overall probability estimates for cosmic threats in the next 100 years seem to range from 0.00001% to 1%, but some probabilities are unknown and new threats may emerge.

For a more in-depth view, head to an exhaustive list of cosmic threats

Spacefaring civilisation

I don't think colonising Mars will save us from existential risk this century. AI could travel between worlds, nuclear war could not make Earth less habitable than Mars, islands are probably safer than Mars during a pandemic, asteroid impacts are well-managed, and cosmic threats would impact Mars too. 

However, in the long term, a spacefaring civilisation (hopefully after some time for reflection) will be more hardy in response to existential threats than an Earthbound civilisation. 


Overall, the space community has been identifying existential risks, directly solving them, inventing new technologies to tackle existential risk, and inspiring long-term and big-picture thinking. Also, if there are any more existential threats to emerge, I'll bet they have a high probability of coming from the infinite expanse of space. So keeping our telescopes pointed at the sky is a good idea.  

The space community successfully contributes to mitigating existential risk on Earth and in space. However, members of the space community should collaborate more closely with people working on existential risks. EAs working on existential risk should view the space community as a valuable scientific, technological, and philosophical powerhouse of resources for tackling existential risks, with a track record of efficiency, openness and international collaboration to learn from. 




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