Worries about spreading Earth microbes shouldn't slow search for life on Mars

phys.org | 9/29/2017 | Staff
nallynally (Posted by) Level 4
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There may be no bigger question than whether we are alone in our solar system. As our spacecraft find new clues about the presence of liquid water now or in the past on Mars, the possibility of some kind of life there looks more likely. On Earth, water means life, and that's why the exploration of Mars is guided by the idea of following the water.

But the search for life on Mars is paired with plenty of strong warnings about how we must sterilize our spacecraft to avoid contaminating our neighbor planet. How will we know what's native Martian if we unintentionally seed the place with Earth organisms? A popular analogy points out that Europeans unknowingly brought smallpox to the New World, and they took home syphilis. Similarly, it is argued, our robotic explorations could contaminate Mars with terrestrial microorganisms.

Astrobiologist - Environments - Mars - Arguments - Danger

As an astrobiologist who researches the environments of early Mars, I suggest these arguments are misleading. The current danger of contamination via unmanned robots is actually quite low. But contamination will become unavoidable once astronauts get there. NASA, other agencies and the private sector hope to send human missions to Mars in the 2030s.

Space agencies have long prioritized preventing contamination over our hunt for life on Mars. Now is the time to reassess and update this strategy – before human beings get there and inevitably introduce Earth organisms despite our best efforts.

Arguments - Caution - Mars - Exploration - Strategies

Arguments calling for extra caution have permeated Mars exploration strategies and led to the creation of specific guiding policies, known as planetary protection protocols.

Strict cleaning procedures are required on our spacecraft before they're allowed to sample regions on Mars which could be a habitat for microorganisms, either native to Mars or brought there from Earth. These areas are labeled by the planetary protection offices as "Special Regions."

Worry

The worry is that,...
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