A Tax Odyssey


On July 23, NASA announced the discovery of Kepler-452b: the first potentially Earth-like planet within the "habitable zone" of a star like our Sun. Kepler-452b is 1,400 light-years away, meaning the New Horizons space probe that just passed Pluto should get there in another 26 million years. It's 60% bigger than Earth, takes 385 of our days to orbit its sun, and is said to likely have a rocky composition. Reporters instantly dubbed the planet "Earth 2.0," and scientists from the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute have already begun targeting it for signs of intelligent life.

At the same time, officials in Washington are also searching for signs of intelligence with their final frontier being the anomaly that is the tax code. So we got to wondering…is there any way that our search for extraterrestrial life might help us out of our current budget jam? In plainer terms: can we tax it?

Let's start closest to home. Our own astronauts are subject to U.S. tax on all of their worldwide income, regardless of where they live. However, they do get an automatic two-month extension to file if they're outside the U.S. on April 15. (So, we'd assume "off the planet" also counts.) Astronauts also pay regular tax on their salaries, which range from $64,724 to $141,715 per year. So, while our astronauts might escape earth's gravity, there's no escaping the IRS.

Further outside Earth's orbit, asteroid mining might lead to some nice new tax gains. Our home planet is running out of key elements like phosphorus, antimony, zinc, tin, lead, silver, and gold, so companies like Planetary Resources are working to expand Earth's dwindling resource base by mining asteroids. While their "cost of goods sold" will be higher than comparable land-based minerals, the profit will be taxed as ordinary income, with rates up to 35%.

But, the real tax jackpot will come should extraterrestrials decide to join us here on Earth. U.S. resident aliens — which presumably also includes space aliens — are generally taxed the same way as U.S. citizens, which means their worldwide income is subject to U.S. tax. While we don't know anything about the economy on Kepler-452b, it's safe to assume that a civilization advanced enough to travel 1,400 light years will probably have no shortage of wealth. And, as sure as the sun rises in the east, our federal, state, and local governments won't hesitate to ask for their cut.

However, there's one unsettling possibility we can't ignore: What if we do find intelligent life somewhere out there, and they don't like us? Famed physicist Stephen Hawking suggests we're safer not waving too hard to attract alien attention, simply because if they can find us and reach us, they can probably destroy us, too. "If aliens ever visit us, " Hawking says, "I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn't turn out very well for the American Indians. " If that's the case, the only tax worth collecting will be the estate tax…and that is, if there's anyone left to collect it!