Astrobiologists Alberto Fairen, and Dirk Schulze-Makuch have beef with environmental protection policies. Not here on Earth, that is, but on Mars, where rigid regulations from NASA's Office of Planetary Protection are holding back potentially life-discovering research, according to the pair's paper in Nature Geoscience today.
While humans can't make it to Mars just yet, it's possible that some microbial spacecraft hitchhikers can survive the journey and make their home on the Red Planet. In fact, it's probable that they already have. Some Earth life might have also been transferred naturally through meteorites.
NASA's Office of Planetary Protection would like to minimize the risk of bringing more life to Mars than we bargained for. Its goal is to "promote the responsible exploration of the solar system by minimizing the biological contamination of explored environment," which seems like a pretty noble goal--the first rule of interplanetary camping is leave your site less Earth-y than you found it.
But Fairen and Schulze-Makuch take issue with the fact that missions exploring "special regions"--places that the Office of Planetary Protection determines could theoretically support either Martian or Earth life--face extra sterilization requirements to ensure that there's no cross-planetary contamination. These strict guidelines--including working in clean rooms with special airflow requirements and sterilizing spacecraft using dry heat microbial reduction--they argue, make the search for life on Mars too expensive, and curtail exploration. (It's unclear what kind of extra expense we're talking, though this clean room price calculator from 2001 makes them seem fairly pricey, at least to build.)
Thus, the scientists recommend, we should cut back on the regulations governing sterilization for orbiter missions and some surface missions, and re-evaluate the sterilization requirements for rover missions seeking to discover life on a case-by-case basis.
"If Earth microorganisms can thrive on Mars, they almost certainly already do; and if they cannot, the transer [sic] of Earth life to Mars should be of no concern, as it would simply not survive," they write.
Essentially, they say that it's likely Earth life has already contaminated Mars through meteorite impacts over the past 3.8 billion years, or through past spacecraft visits before sterilization requirements were put in place.
NASA's spacecraft sterilization began with the launch of the Viking landers to Mars in 1975. Before being sent off into the great unknown, they were cleaned and then placed in essentially a giant casserole dish and baked for 30 hours at 233 degrees Fahrenheit to kill off any lurking microorganisms. But it's uncertain if the unmanned Soviet missions to Mars and Venus during the period underwent any kind of sterilization. Some scientists say the missions probably deposited some organisms from Earth on those planets. More recently, the Mars rover Curiosity might have brought some Earth microbes on accidentally contaminated drill bits or on its wheels.
If the microorganisms that came to Mars over the past few billion years or during the Space Race didn't survive, Fairen and Schulze-Makuch write, any new microorganisms probably wouldn't either. If they did survive, well, the cat's already out of the bag, and "it is too late to protect Mars from terrestrial life." A little bleak. They still encourage cleaning spacecraft to prevent confusion between what microorganisms might be earthly in origin and which could be Martian.
And like any good argument, they make the case that scaling back requirements is all about your tax money: "As planetary exploration faces drastic budget cuts globally, it is critical to avoid unnecessary expenses and reroute the limited taxpayers' money to missions that can have the greatest impact on planetary exploration," they write. Fewer requirements, cheaper missions.
On the one hand, we're all for making greater Mars exploration as easy as possible. But then again, we're already pretty good at contaminating our own planet--maybe we should be strict about what we bring to another.
You have to love the editor that was able to sneak in that famous "penis pic" picture of mars when discussing sterilization.
A very expensive robot is sent to Mars to collect samples of micro-organisms.... It comes back with a sample of a dead bug that was brought with it from Earth and the whole discovery is a fluex.
Honestly, some-people will do anything to get a bit of money these days.
Forgot to mention, the penis pic is hilarious (first time I saw it).
Nasa can eat a tire track. Kudos for the first person to kickstart biological activity on mars. Terraforming is an eventuality, not a possibility. They wasted their first trips, they should have packed it with every kind of microbe from earth they could have and we would be a decade ahead on evolution of mars microbes, and ahead on terraforming.
News flash, it's a dead planet. If there are a few types of micro-organisms left, who are we kidding? they will be extinct eventually, and given other types of organisms to swap genes with, they will survive, and we will eventually get all of their genomes.
Yeah right to the earth life making its way to mars. Last i checked there are no organism that can survive, A, the initial meteorite strike, B, the vacuum of space, and C , survive re-entry. (mars may have a limited atmosphere, but it still can heat things up) Plus its average temperatures are below freezing, and way below the tolerable range of earth organisms.
Simply put, NASA can eat a tire track. All those brains, billions of dollars and not a single bit of common sense.
When do we stop looking for bugs on mars and start terraforming it?
The problem with terraforming Mars is that it does not have enough gravity or magnetic field to hold in a thick atmosphere, it will eventually bleed off into deep space just like Mars' old atmosphere.
Still it would be interesting to bring along a few samples of micro organizes on the next Mars mission to study how they react the environment. If [as I suspect] they die, then we can declare Mars dead and move on to Europa.
What's this 'if' nonsense? We know martian enviromental conditions and surface chemestry. Do a freaking lab test! Vacuum pumps are not that expensive!
If you can't be bothered to do that before speaking up, don't bother speaking up.
Are we there yet?
Are we there yet?
Are we there yet?
You get the idea.
I want to settle on Mars!!!!!
Are we there yet?!
Didn't I read an article like this right before oilrigs started exploding? Even so, they can probably be relaxed some. There are several levels of clean rooms/controled environments as well as several types of sterilization. Can they not hermetically seal most of the craft therefor keeping it seperate from the environment anyway?
Andrew, no, you can't hide on Mars either, lol.
No asylum for you here buddy.
How clueless do you have to be to think it actually matters whether a 21st century NASA rover landing on the surface of Mars might have a tiny amount of bacteria? Even if a NASA rover were to leave a tiny amount of bacteria on the surface of Mars, it would take millions of years for that bacteria to reproduce enough to have any effect on the Martian environment whatsoever.
If we find a bug on Mars, would it then forbid from disturbing their Mars and bug environment?
As we explore our solar region, what moral decision have we made in advance should come across life there. Our natural biology could destroy or change their biology. Do we have a right disturb another solar life form?
if it doesnt attack our probe and try to carry it away I'm not interested. lets get colonizing!
THERE'S A GOOD EXPLANATION FOR WHY LIFE MAY EXIST ON MARS.
In the Earth's past there was powerful volcanic activity which could have easily spewed dirt and rocks containing microbes into outer space which not only could have eventually reached Mars but also ended up traveling in orbit through space that we now know as meteors. A Newsweek article of September 21, 1998, p.12 mentions exactly this possibility. "We think there's about 7 million tons of earth soil sitting on Mars", says scientist and evolutionist Kenneth Nealson. "You have to consider the possibility that if we find life on Mars, it could have come from the Earth" [Weingarten, T., Newsweek, September 21, 1998, p.12].
Read my popular Internet article, ANY LIFE ON MARS CAME FROM EARTH!
Visit my newest sites, THE SCIENCE SUPPORTING CREATION and WAR AMONG EVOLUTIONISTS (2ND Edition)
Babu G. Ranganathan*
Author of the popular Internet article, TRADITIONAL DOCTRINE OF HELL EVOLVED FROM GREEK ROOTS
*I have given successful lectures (with question and answer period afterwards) defending special creation before evolutionist science faculty and students at various colleges and universities. I've been privileged to be recognized in the 24th edition of Marquis "Who's Who In The East" for my writings.
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I suppose the goal of finding life on another planet should include "not killing it via cross-contamination with our own hitch-hiking micro-organisms".
European explorers wiped out the western part of the globe with small-pox and other diseases the native westerns were not prepared for.
Similarly, local lakes and forests are becoming infected with non-native invasive species from areas where they have been transferred from via ship water tanks and firewood and shipping containers and such. These invasive species destroy the local ecosystem and have no natural predators, so they do much damage are are difficult to control.
We know this.
Although the chance of earth life somehow surviving well enough to become an invasive species somewhere else on another planet seems remote, the fact is, we WILL eventually find other life out there. And when we do, it would be good if we don't wipe it all out with the first probe, because we wanted to save a few $$$.
does your classmate's step aunt drive the martian rover from her house? that'd be a sweet gig
What some of the more impatient don't get is that microorganisms don't have to be bad per se. We could find new bacterium or even virus that could make us more than what we are, or just live longer in certain medical conditions. BUT, if we go getting lax now the only things on Mars we'll ever get a chance at in their pure state will be fossil. If we so much as find something alive there, we could have the genetic template for adapting humans to live on Mars. That is, as we know, well beyond price. Certainly far more worth than the PIDDLING cost of sterilization measures until we know what the hell we are doing on that world--which does NOT belong to NASA; I might add. If anything, it points to the fact that we need to be moving quickly on the international scene so that any damages as have been done might be limited to what's done now.
Put it this way. We hire the best minds we can find on this planet to work at NASA. Always have. We've paid through the nose for these measures and systems to be most exacting. We pay again and again and again for protocols revisioning. Design, redesign, SCRAP. Start over. We pay for each baby step to be as sure footed as possible, gleaning the most MATERIAL benefit to MANKIND. Not what befits someone who works at NASA's idea of a beneficial cost cutting technique that wants to turn our space program into something more halfassed than can be tolerated. If you can't deliver US clean, operable craft to specific designated spots on that planet, you have no need of a Mars budget because you won't be going back there. We can suspend your taxi medallion in general too, if we even start to think that just maybe there's other actions being taken there that can lead to anything less than the safest, most precise road to the stars that humans can devise FOR ALL THOSE WHO FOLLOW. Who won't be working for NASA. That's the job of anyone who works there, and always has been.
What's the dealio? Apophis gonna hit us or something? Why the rush to bag well thought out and documented prudence, wisdom, and possible critical benefit to humanity all of a sudden? I ain't asked of the American people, nor of our dedicated space partner nations or the rest; but I'm pretty sure that if I did, BILLIONS of us would come to a spectacular majority consensus about this one. That might be a good idea, actually. Get the word out worldwide that we need to find ways to bring the prep costs of these craft down. I remember when we first started with the UV and IR sanitation. Remember how it was gonna save us 80% across the entire sanitation market?
Anyway. As a suggestion for consideration, what about starting to think about it in the way some of us do that have done cleanroom sanitation in the macro setting, ie, meatpacking plants? Bear with me for a sec. I understand that we are talking spacecraft and sensitive instruments here. I also understand that in a modern plant such as the one I was a plant floater in had all kinds of sensitive gear at various stations. And we'd take an environment where pork product and other contaminants covered everything down to something much cleaner than what is required, and hundreds of times cleaner than your average hospital surface. See, in that environment, a flagged workstation shuts down the entire area it's in. The shift of people trying to get ready for their day can't be there. And the job is time dependent, with as minimal a cleaning window as possible.
Now the point. Some things are actually easier to manually clean than in some general bath process. But this has to be done as a pattern to work well. For any of those pieces of gear there is a pattern by which it can be cleaned in a single process that ends with a clean thing. I'd start thinking about spraying these things. Hose them with something valence poor, like nitrogen. A halide? You got tanks of it onsite already, right? So you get someone that's an actual SKILLED HOSER. I ain't talking about no fireman here. Someone who walks up to ANYTHING, and can see the pattern needed to knock down and kill the huge percentage of the contaminants on that device. You'd want to be providing various sizes of hose; all with adjustable pressure. The smallest would look like an airbrush gun or something even smaller, I'd expect. With continuous observation, I suspect that a robot could be trained for this kind of task but it's going to be a while before we have one that could actually do it. Still, data can be collected now and protocols can be formulated for the handling of certain types of things that we know are going to be used for a while.
This is the rule as I figured it. You can't clean a thing and have it done. Doesn't work that way. The whole supposed cleanroom must be cleaned as part of the pattern, folks. I'll bet good money that's a questionable topic of concern right now.
Terraforming Mars for human habitation is impossible. It may be possible to seed life on it, and that's a great idea (after we've made sure there isn't any on there already), but it's never going to be habitable for unaugmented humans. Trying to make it so would be an immense waste of time and energy. Much better to modify humans to fit the environment than to modify the environment to fit humans.
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