NASA scientists may still be celebrating their discovery of liquid water on Mars, but they now face some serious questions about how they can investigate further and look for signs of life on the red planet.
After all, discovering that Mars has life or even that in can support life will be one of the greatest discoveries ever. But that won’t happen so quick. NASA’s press statement makes it seem that scientists have certain evidence of flowing water. They do not. What they have is chemical evidence that gives a strong suggestion of liquid water mixed with salts. More importantly, however, even if NASA was 100% certain that there is liquid water on Mars, it could not do anything about it.
The problem is how to find life without contaminating the planet with bugs from Earth.
Researchers at the space agency are keen for the Curiosity rover to take a closer look at the long dark streaks created by liquid water running down craters and canyon walls during the summer months on Mars.
The world’s space powers are bound by rules agreed to under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty that forbid anyone from sending a mission, robot or human, close to a water source in the fear of contaminating it with life from Earth.
But the rover is not sterile and risks contaminating the wet areas with earthly bugs that will have hitched a ride to the planet and may still be alive. The vehicle has been trundling around the large Gale crater looking for evidence that Mars was habitable in the ancient past. It has so far uncovered evidence of past river networks and age-old lakes.
All space missions to an alien world are bound by planetary protection protocols. On Mars, these protocols determine which areas a mission can and cannot land, and how far it can explore after landing. And the more we learn about Mars , the more special regions are being found where we can’t send missions.
Areas that are warm or wet enough to support Martian life are out of bounds. Polar ice caps, caves, and regions with volcanic activity are such special regions. Even regions where ice is found as deep as five meters below the surface are on the list.
However, the dark, damp streaks, called recurring slope lineae (RSL), are a different prospect. Because they are wet at least part of the time, they will be designated as special regions where only sterile landers can visit. But such a restriction could hamper scientists’ hopes of looking for current life on Mars.
The Mars 2020 Rover, for instance, carries a plutonium-powered heat generator, which can, if it falls on the surface, cause ice deep inside to melt and create liquid water. Its exploration area, then, is further restricted.
The irony is that all these restrictions mean NASA has to stay away from the very regions where it may find water or Martian life.
NASA’s hype around the discovery of liquid water on Mars can be explained by its constant need to increase funding for its work. And that attention seems to be helping. But it won’t be eager to tell you that its human mission, currently planned for 2030, will inevitably contaminate Mars with microbes, and break the rules of an international treaty.
Indeed, what’s the guarantee that all those objects and rovers we’ve sent to Mars haven’t already contaminated the red planet?
Are we trying to pollute yet another planet on the galaxy. Does life exists beyond Earth? No one really holds answers for these questions. And NASA is still trying to get something good for the mankind, but probably not so good for nature.
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