Should Mars be treated like a wildlife preserve?

MarsFinding life on Mars would be pretty awesome, right? Of course it would – but it would also mean we’d have to change the way we work on the red planet, because of the ethical can of worms presented by contaminating a whole new biosphere.

We’ve already contaminated it, though – all of our probes and landers are likely festooned with Earthside microbes. Now some planetary scientists recommend that, should life be found, we remove or destroy our Martian hardware and keep things pristine:

He warns that Earth life could be reawakened if weather conditions on the planet change. This could happen as a result of periodic swings in the planet’s tilt, or if humans purposely alter the Martian environment, which, ironically, they might do to make conditions cosier for any Martian life they might discover. Microbes on subsurface drills in search of liquid water could also contaminate potential Martian habitats.

Here’s Jamias Cascio’s response:

… if life is found, definitely. No question. If fossilized life is found, also definitely, since that could mean dormant life, waiting for a Mars Spring.

If there’s no evidence of past or present life found… the question becomes more difficult. I always kind of sympathized with the Reds over the Greens in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, but I also believe that establishing a human foothold off of Earth is a wise long-term survival strategy.

Could we justify changing the Martian climate, knowing that — as with Earth — such changes are irreversible?

The answer to that will depend on circumstance, I guess; it’s worth considering that the sort of political climate that would lead to greater exploration of Mars might well be the sort of climate that produces colonial attitudes. And the colonial era was pretty big on resource exploitation… [image by chipdatajeffb]

What do you think – should Mars be preserved pristine?

3 thoughts on “Should Mars be treated like a wildlife preserve?”

  1. As I understand it, the Viking series of landers were all built in class 100K clean rooms, and then sterilized on completion. The intent was to prevent, as much as possible, the chance of Earth microbiota being carried to Mars. I don’t know what steps were taken on later lander missions, but I would be surprised if no attempt was made to prevent what’s called “forward contamination” of Mars. There are draft international agreements that specify the steps to be taken in this regard, but I’m not aware of the status of their ratification by individual states.

    In other words, most of the people who work on the probes that go to Mars are well aware of the problem, and there are efforts to get every space-going nation to adhere to reasonable solutions. Whether that translates to all the current probes having been carefully enough sterilized, and all future probes to be sterilized, is quite another question.

  2. How long would we have to *not* find evidence of life on Mars to conclude that there is none? As with Saddam Hussein’s WMDs, one side could always claim we just hadn’t found the evidence *yet*; and Mars is a much bigger place than Iraq. I imagine the question would ultimately be decided based on politics.

  3. I think our presence there is bound to change some things for good, no matter how clean we try to be. We will probably regret that — in retrospect. In the mean time, I for one think colonization will become a more important priority.

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