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"That's exactly the question that needs ...
"That's exactly the question that needs to be addressed early in the process," said Catharine Conley, NASA's planetary protection officer.
On Space Shuttle Columbia's final ...
On Space Shuttle Columbia's final mission, it had onboard an experiment coordinated by Catherine Conley, a biologist with NASA's Ames Research Center, now the agency's planetary protection officer.
After the shuttle was destroyed reentering the Earth's atmosphere, the nematode cultures contained in the experiment were recovered still alive.
What the accident demonstrated is that not only can microbial life survive in space; it can survive entry into the Earth's atmosphere.
Now evidence indicates that billions of years ago, Mars had water and atmospheric conditions that could, theoretically, have supported life.
Meteor strikes have meanwhile caused serial ejections of material from Earth to Mars and from Mars to Earth, meaning it's possible (possible) that microbial life actually originated on Mars, which subsequently became inhospitable to it, and landed from there on Earth.
If we do find microbial life on Mars, then, Conley
said, "... it could look like us.
"It's like looking for stars when ...
"It's like looking for stars when the sun's out," says NASA's Catharine Conley.
For the past 10 years at NASA
has had the difficult, sometimes unappreciated job of keeping Mars clean.
She is the head of the Office of Planetary Protection, which is tasked with preventing alien organisms from getting loose in Earth's ecosystem, as well as keeping humans from inadvertently seeding other planets with terrestrial life.
While spacecraft are more complex today than they were during the disco era, Conley
says it's still perfectly feasible to design rovers and landers that can tolerate high heat.
"For Mars missions, the biggest challenge is that the mission planners and designers choose not to include the heat-tolerance requirements up front, and it costs a lot more if you have to add those functions later," she
Studies conducted a decade ago suggested that late design changes for heat tolerance would add $100 million to the price tag of a mission.
says, the cost per mission gets cheaper as the space agency becomes more adept at designing heat-resistant hardware.
From the perspective of planetary protection, Conley
is also concerned about terrestrial organisms that can absorb water from the air.
recalls fieldwork she
did in the Atacama Desert in Chile, which is one of the driest places on Earth, with less than 0.04 inch of rain a year.
Even in this dessicated place, she
found life: photosynthetic bacteria that had made a home in tiny chambers within halite salt crystals.
There's a small amount of water retained inside the halite and, at night, it cools down and condenses both on the walls of the chambers and on the surface of the organisms that are sitting there.
also warns that water contaminated with Earth microbes could pose serious problems if astronauts ever establish a base on Mars
Most current plans call for expeditions that rely on indigenous resources to sustain astronauts and reduce the supplies they would need to haul from Earth.
What if, for example, an advance mission carried certain types of bacteria known to create calcite when exposed to water?
If such bacteria could survive on Mars
says, future explorers prospecting for liquid water instead might find that underground aquifers have been turned into cement.
If we do succeed in keeping Mars
clean for future human explorers, there isn't much we can do to prevent contamination caused by the humans themselves.
"Leaks happen, mistakes happen, things get broken," says Conley
, though, the possibility of a meteor exchange only strengthens the argument for keeping Mars clean.
"It becomes more difficult and more important to prevent Earth contamination if Mars life is related to Earth life," Conley
Humans will contaminate Mars with life - the question is how to do it right - The Verge
"It was fully recognized that humans could potentially colonize Mars in the future," Catherine Conley, NASA's planetary protection officer, tells The Verge.
The planetary protection guidelines for a Mars colony will differ from the ones that are in place now, Conley
Rovers and spacecraft can be (mostly) sterilized; people can't.
The human body alone carries more than 10,000 different types of bacteria.
So scientists all over the world will have to discuss what makes sense for a human settlement, says Conley
But another major motivation for planetary protection was to protect humans, Conley
It's important to explore Mars in its natural state, so we'll understand the planet's environment - in case people live there someday.
"Understand the environment well enough so you don't encounter bad surprises," says Conley
That's why Conley
and Nye argue it's prudent to learn more about Mars before we start sending humans there.
The guidelines will be a bit like brushing your teeth, says Conley
"You can't keep your mouth totally sterile after eating a candy bar.
Brushing reduces bacteria but doesn't get rid of them," she
It will take a lot of discussion - among the US government agencies and the nations of the Outer Space Treaty - to figure out what these guidelines should be, says Conley
But something similar happened with the Apollo missions in the 1960s.
When those launches happened, the science community wasn't sure if the Moon had any hazardous material, so restrictions were put in place as to what the astronauts could bring to the Moon and what they could bring back.
"If the US does not engage in international consultation, it could be held liable under international court."
"The same kinds of discussions need to happen again," says Conley
In fact, the US could be in trouble if it doesn't consult with its international partners about the proper planetary protection guidelines for a Martian colony.
"If the US does not engage in international consultation, it could be held liable under international court," says Conley
"It's so important to have discussions and come to a consensus before we do something we can't take back," says Conley
How NASA makes sure we don't contaminate the Solar System | The Verge
"We would find it very difficult to identify Mars life if we already contaminated the planet with Earth life," says Catharine Conley, NASA's Planetary Protection officer.