Mars Exchange
Planetary Protection: How would the discovery of Martian life impact Mars One?

Planetary Protection: How would the discovery of Martian life impact Mars One?

by Vince on Thursday, 4th August 2016 in Expert Opinions, People, John Rummel

Dr. John D. Rummel, an adviser to Mars One, is a Senior Scientist with the SETI Institute and was formerly the Director of East Carolina University’s (ECU’s) Institute for Coastal Science and Policy. He has served twice with NASA—from 1986 to 1993 as (among other things) Exobiology Program Manager and Manager, Life Support Systems Integration, and from 1998 to 2006 as NASA’s Planetary Protection Officer. From 2006 to 2008 he was NASA’s Senior Scientist for Astrobiology, responsible for all of NASA’s efforts in astrobiology. He chaired The International Council for Science’s Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) Panel on Planetary Protection from 1999 to 2014, and is also a member of COSPAR’s Panel on Exploration and the representative of the International Union of Biological Science on the COSPAR Council. He the lead author of some of the newest guidelines on the exploration of Mars, “A New Analysis of Mars ‘‘Special Regions’’: Findings of the Second MEPAG Special Regions Science Analysis Group,” published in 2014 in Astrobiology.

Early this year, I spoke with Dr. Rummel about the concept of planetary protection and why we need to be especially careful about contaminating Mars as we explore and look to the possibility of settling it. In this second of three parts, we explore the Martian environment and the likelihood of Martian life.

What if we found evidence of existing life on Mars before Mars One landed? How would this affect the plans? And what is the likelihood of finding Martian life?

“Before we get into the subject of potential life, let’s look at the history of this and some potential problems. In the late 1950s, when people first thought about sending probes out to other planets, there was a call from the scientific community to sterilize spacecraft to minimize contamination of other planets. This was not a call to avoid studying other planets, but to do study them in a responsible way, so that you could actually learn the lessons you went there to learn.

Of course, there are people who say we shouldn’t go anywhere because we can’t completely sterilize our probes, and people who want to spend the money for exploration on something else. But we spend a very small portion of our national budget on planetary exploration. Currently there’s a worldwide interest in Mars exploration and potential habitation. And there are good reasons to go ahead and try to establish a presence for humanity off of Earth, both for scientific research and in the event of a catastrophe on Earth. We can’t stop exploring and being interested.

But Mars One—as is the case with other Mars programs, including those of NASA--lacks complete plans for dealing with the Martian environment as it is, let alone what to do if there were life there. For example, the pervasive dust is tiny, gets into everything, and will be difficult to filter out. And some of this dust is perchlorate, which is highly reactive and corrosive and could affect both an EVA suit and the habitat.

Another problem is that it is warm enough and the pressure is high enough, at times, for Martian water to become liquid. This means you have to be ready to deal with the actions of rime ice or water that melts and refreezes. All of that has to be taken into consideration. We exhale a lot of water as we breathe, and that can get into EVA systems in a way that can create problems too. The combination of water and perchlorate in the dust is going to be a tough challenge to deal with, because of the corrosive capacity when water and perchlorates combine. Those are just a few of the problems in survival on Mars.

I’m bringing this up because these things are examples of known uncertainties regarding basic human health considerations. This means that with so much going on, we might miss the fact that we are dealing with problems of Martian microbes. These could enter the habitat in a quiescent form on the dust and then become active in the warmer habitat.

As for the likelihood of finding life on Mars, I give it even odds. Earth and Mars already have the potential to share materials in nature. When an object strikes Mars, it ejects a lot of material, some of which lands on Earth. It’s probable that material blasted off from Earth in an impact could have landed on Mars. Some of that material could contain microbes—in either direction. So microbes on Mars could come from Earth, but there’s also the potential that life on Earth could have been seeded by life on Mars, back in the time of heavier bombardment by asteroids. 

We know that there are Earth microbes that can just “shut down” for a while. These could be in a large rock, where they are protected from cosmic radiation. So there is potential that if Mars life exits, it is related to Earth life. This means we really have to examine the environment carefully both before we get there and after we get there.

There are many hardy life forms on Earth that can tolerate conditions we cannot. We have things living in boiling water in Yellowstone Park and in Mt. St Helens. We have organisms that can survive seven megarads of radiation. To put that in perspective, the frozen moon, Europa, is continuously bombarded by radiation. Imagine that you were an astronaut who landed on the surface of Europa. If you were to step out onto the surface of Europa with no spacesuit on, five megarads of radiation would kill you before the cold or lack of atmosphere. We’re not really good with radiation. But these microbes, they don’t mind! 

About forty kilograms of Mars lands on Earth every year. Most of that lands in the ocean. It’s easiest to find bits of Mars when it lands on places like Antarctica or the middle of the desert. We know that microbes and meteorites go together like hand and glove. The French have found that if a meteorite lands in the Sahara Desert and it isn’t immediately picked up by a human, within 24 hours it’ll be full of Earth microbes. There are many rock-eating microbes, and the Martian meteorite is fresh food for some of them.”

The extreme environment of Mars sounds unsuitable for life—at least as we know it on Earth. And yet we are learning more and more about life that thrives in unusual, seemingly hostile environments. In the final installment of this three-part series, Dr. Rummel further describes the astonishingly robust microbial world—and suggests how Mars One’s habitat will play a role in planetary protection.

Story submitted by Vincent Hyman, a writer and Mars One volunteer living in St. Paul, Minnesota, USA. 

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