The spacefaring nations of the world plan to send at least five robotic missions to Mars in the next five years, and eventually begin colonization of the red planet, but the alien life already there may complicate matters.
To find out more about the alien life that could already be on Mars, Kevin Carey from Wired sat down with NASA’s planet protection officer: Catharine Conley.
NASA hired Conley to make sure microbes from Earth don’t infect an alien world like smallpox from European settlers infected Native Americans in the New World, Conley told Wired.
“We didn’t think we were going to make parts of Central America uninhabitable for hundreds of years by bringing malaria from Europe. We didn’t think we were going to cover the southern United States in kudzu.”
NASA scientists originally thought Mars was a dry desert environment, but after the Curiosity rover landed on the red planet, they noticed a set of dark streaks in the soil. It turned out those dark gullies signified the presence of water on Mars, Jim Green, NASA’s director of planetary science, told Wired.
“When you look at Earth, everywhere we go where there’s liquid water we find life.”
Life comes in all shapes and sizes and after NASA scientists discovered the existence of water on the surface of the red planet it’s become much more likely there’s alien life there as well, even if it’s just microbes.
The space agency wants to know if Mars has life, no matter how small, before the red planet is contaminated with microbes from Earth and the native life there is overrun with an invasive species, Conley told Wired.
“The whole planet is a dinner plate for these organisms. They will eat Mars.”
That’s because of something called the observer effect, which essentially says that nothing can be studied in a vacuum because the thing being studied is changed by the mere presence of the observer.
To make sure there’s as little chance of contamination from Earth as possible, NASA has initiated a series of protocols that’s designed to scrub microbes from every surface of the space probes and rovers destined for outer space.
It started back in 1969, when astronauts from the Apollo 11 landed on the moon; when they returned the space agency bundled them off to a quarantine area so they could be decontaminated before they interacted with the public.
Today, every piece of metal NASA sends into space is decontaminated with high temperatures, special chemicals, and high-powered radiation before being loaded onto the rocket that will send it away from Earth.
No matter how good this cleansing process is, some microbes survive the journey, which is why there’s a heated debate going on at NASA between the planetary protection office and the folks assembling the next Mars rover, Andy Weir, author of The Martian, told Wired.
“There are huge, huge battles going on inside NASA. The planetary protection process is a huge burden to the design of these probes. It makes every aspect more difficult.”
The whole conversation will soon become pointless, however — two years from now, Elon Musk and his SpaceX travel company will start plan on launching cargo rockets to Mars, with the goal of eventually establishing a human colony.
By 2022, Musk plans to have his Mars Colonial Transporter up and running, which will enable him to ship colonists en masse to the red planet, which will probably destroy the pristine environment NASA is trying to maintain.
Musk told the Washington Post that by 2024 he hopes to make the Earth to Mars crossing a regular transit route, which would mankind a two-planet species.
“It’s dangerous and probably people will die. And then they’ll pave the way.”
[Image via NASA]