NASA's Plan to Defend Earth and Mars From an Alien Invasion

Monday, 11 December 2017 - 11:29AM
Alien Life
Monday, 11 December 2017 - 11:29AM
NASA's Plan to Defend Earth and Mars From an Alien Invasion
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Image credit: Pixabay
In HG Wells' classic sci-fi horror novel War of the Worlds, alien invaders who conquer the Earth are ultimately killed by an unexpected weapon: our planet's native bacteria.

As strange as it may seem for this to be a genuine threat, one of the biggest challenges involved in exploring the cosmos is making sure that humanity doesn't accidentally infect foreign worlds with our own gross germs, or alternatively, unwittingly bring space bugs back to our planet.

One mistake here could leave Mars covered in dangerous diseases, or cause a plague that would wipe out life on our own home world.

Enter Catharine Conley, who, since 2006, has been the stalwart defender of the Earth. She doesn't get to fire a laser gun or pilot a cool spaceship, but her job involves keeping the Earth safe from aliens that could kill us all.

The problem with microscopic life forms centers around disease resistance—or, more importantly, a lack thereof.

We might not notice that our hands are covered in tiny germs because we've developed an immunity to them, but take them elsewhere in the universe, and we could potentially unleash a deadly illness on the landscape that could wipe out any native life forms that could exist there.

This is essentially the point of the ending of War of the Worlds—Wells' story is a metaphor for colonialism, with alien invaders neglecting to realize the effects that local micro-organisms can have on an unprepared immune system.

This happens all the time in real life—if you've ever been on a journey far from home, you might have been advised to avoid drinking the local water, just in case an otherwise harmless local bug messes with your unprepared immune system.

"We know from experience of moving organisms around on Earth that invasive species can have unexpected and unintended consequences," Conley said.

"Assuring Earth's safety from extraterrestrial biohazards is the highest priority for planetary protection."

Recently, Russian astronauts discovered unexplained bacteria on the outside of the International Space Station.

Bringing these to Earth without thorough tests could have seen the planet suffer through an alien plague that nobody would be immune to, which was why they needed to be properly tested before being brought home.

Perhaps more important than the threat of alien life, is the dangers that are posed by Earth-borne bacteria which mutate in outer space.

As it turns out, many diseases grow more potent when able to multiply in a zero-gravity environment, which is why Conley and her team are regularly involved in tests that explore just how quickly bacteria grow in space, and what effects it may have on their ability to overrun the human immune system.

Conley gained a PhD in plant biology from Cornell University in 1994, before going on to work for NASA, designing experiments into organic matter that could be undertaken in orbit.

In 2006, after working on several key projects in this field, she was officially given the title of Planetary Protection Officer, and was assigned the responsibility of organizing all decontamination processes to make sure that astronauts coming home don't bring icky space germs with them.

Along this time, there have been plenty of interesting experiments and discoveries in this field. At one point, it was found that the Curiosity Mars Rover had managed to sneak some bacteria from Earth aboard, while the recent death of the Cassini space probe was orchestrated so that the probe couldn't accidentally infect one of Saturn's moons with Earth bugs.

While Conley has been hard at work defending the Earth for decades now, her job is likely to get a lot busier in the near future as commercial space flight increases the number of rockets that are going up and coming down.

"There are an increasing number of organisations becoming involved in space exploration, so the potential for inadvertent contamination is increasing," said Conley.

At present, it seems that Conley and her team are up to the challenge of keeping the Earth safe from deadly mutants and aliens.

She may not ever get the recognition she deserves, but in spite of this, Catharine Conley toils every day to prevent invasion, and maintain microscopic peace between our planet and our neighbors.
Alien Life
NASA's Plan to Defend Earth and Mars From an Alien Invasion