In September, the latest Mars Rover touched down on Mars. The Curiosity rover has seemed to have one mission, and that is to find evidence that life exists or has existed at some point in time on Mars. The question on everybody’s mind however is ‘what happens if it succeeds?’
President Obama has recently stated the obvious is that discovering life on mars would be one of the most important of all human discoveries. He recently held a phone call with NASA Scientists in charge of the mission where he said ‘I’ve got a lot of things on my planet, but if life on Mars exists, I suspect that will go top of the list”
It is unlikely that Curiosity which actually discover life on the Red Planet however. The cameras aren’t powerful enough to pick up small Microbes. However, the instruments that it does have on board are designed to find the ‘building blocks’ of life. For example, chemicals that could exist that suggest life exists on Mars. If this happens, then it is up to the Scientists to decide how to best proceed.
Carl Sagan, a famous astronomer once said that if life was discovered on Mars, it should be left alone, after all, it belongs to the Martians even if only microbes are found. Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society disagrees with him. He says that Sagan’s statement is not in line with human ethics, humans shouldn’t worry about bacteria as they are not people. It seems NASA agrees with the ideas of Zubrin, and the agency even has procedures in place to help protect planers that they are trying to explore.
A treaty, signed by the United Nations in 1967 stated that countries should ‘conduct exploration so as to avoid their harmful contamination’. This is why any rover that been launched on Mars, Curiosity included, is carefully scrubbed and cleaned to stop microbes from earth contaminating the planet.
Conley, head of the planetary protection office at NASA says that any space exploration needs to be done in a controlled manner. Not to avoid things being polluted, but to stop things that may be needed in the future from being destroyed.
Contamination is a problem which has constantly reared its ugly head on Earth. Over and over again, invasive species have been introduced to environments which they are not native to. The idea of any planetary protection guidelines that exist are designed to stop the same thing happening in space.
The next mission for scientists is to get Martian Soil to Earth, and that is the thing that they are striving for. Of course though, if Microbes exist in the soil, then there is the risk that alien life can take over earth. For this reason, the guidelines also give information about how this soil can be stored on Earth. The same level of security needs to be placed on the sample as if you were handling the Ebola virus. Absolutely no Earth life should be allowed into samples.
As soon as Scientists believe that life may exist on the planet, any guidelines would need to be tightened, this includes scrubbing the rovers better than they already are. This means a full sterilization. The intention of scientists is to carry out any research on life on Mars before it becomes contaminated.