Can Humans Prevent Bacteria From Contaminating Mars?
As humanity watches Earth's major powers prepare to colonize the Solar System, most of the questions are practical—how will we provide space settlers with enough energy to survive? How are we going to get there? How much will a ticket cost? Will we be able to reproduce on other planets?
Astrobiologists, meanwhile, are asking a very different set of questions: Is there bacterial life on other planets, and if so, how can we keep invasive Earth bacteria from destroying it?
This is more than a theoretical problem—NASA has already crashed Cassini into Saturn to prevent the spacecraft from potentially contaminating Titan, and despite giving Juno a second lease on life, it too will eventually be ordered to make a kamikaze dive into Jupiter.
Concerns of microbial contamination came to the forefront when Elon Musk (acting in typical Elon Musk fashion) decided to launch his Tesla Roadster into space, carrying what was probably the largest payload of Earth bacteria ever launched into space.
A number of scientists and journalists came forward to explain why this was a terrible, potentially dangerous thing to do, including The Planetary Society's Jason Davis, who was concerned that the Roadster's orbit might cause it to crash into Mars.
"NASA goes to great lengths sterilizing spacecraft designed to land on Mars in order to make sure there's no chance of Earthly microbes contaminating the surface," says Davis.
"Such a contamination could harm existing life and muddle scientific efforts to search for said life...planetary protection is such a huge concern, it actually hinders NASA's ability to search for life! There are endless debates on whether current rovers like Curiosity, or future rovers like Mars 2020, should be allowed to investigate spots where briny water may (or may not) ooze onto the surface."
In the race to colonize space, as humans race to unravel the mysteries of the cosmos, the further we go into The Great Unknown, another truly troubling concern continues to emerge: Humans can change extraterrestrial ecosystems without even realizing it. And now, research proves it.
New research from Texas Tech shows that even though the Apollo 11 mission astronauts were only there for 22 hours, they made a surprising impact on the Moon.
Once we permanently settle on a planet, it may be impossible to stop our activities from destroying any undiscovered life, either by physical means or contamination by Earth microbes. Apollo astronauts subtly changed the pattern of warming in a small area of the Moon's surface when they were operating in the area, creating a mystery that took decades to figure out.
So far, we're already living up to the theory that humans are destined to destroy all other life in the cosmos.