A new report from the US National Research Council is urging NASA to avoid searching for life when it finally sends astronauts to Mars, saying the risk of bringing back harmful microbes to Earth is too great. NASA are understandably in a bit of a quandary, since finding life on the Red Planet would be their main reason for going there.
The “Safe For Mars” report acknowledges that the chance of organisms on Earth being contaminated by Martian nasties is as remote as Osama appearing on national television, dropping his trousers and singing “God Save the Queen”, but it suggests that from a safety perspective the perils should not be brushed off.
While the threat to Earth’s ecosystem from the release of Martian biological agents is very low, the risk of harmful effects is not zero and cannot be ignored,” says the report.
So what they’re suggesting is that NASA shut the gate before the horse has bolted, which is common sense but also pretty boring, if you ask me.
Although there are no current plans to send anyone to Mars, NASA is no doubt hoping it will be able to do so sooner rather than later, and with this in mind they commissioned the NRC report to find out what data they would need to collect in order to plan a human mission.
The report recommended that NASA measure the levels of hexavalent chromium found in Martian dust, before even thinking about starting to plan a mission. Hexavalent chromium is the toxic waste under scrutiny in the movie Erin Brockovitch, and apparently the Mars Pathfinder mission which went to the Red Planet a few years ago found that it made up 0.2 percent of the Martian dust.
And it is nasty.
To top it off the panel of NRC folk are worried that the highly oxidizing Martian environment could have formed toxic chromates from the chromium, which can be extremely harmful to humans. According to New Scientist the Apollo astronauts found that lunar dust worked its way into their capsule during their three-day visit to the Moon, and the NRC are concerned that the same thing could happen on Mars, only the invading dust would be sticky with harmful doses of chromates, which could easily be inhaled.
Sounds like a good premise for a movie, actually.
The NRC also recommend that NASA measure the acidity of Martian soil, because it contains high levels of sulphur and chlorine which can form acids in moist environments such as the one the astronauts would be living in.
The NRC panel says it wants robot probes to scout for the least risky landing areas, and those least likely to contain any form of life, and that the landing craft should be abandoned in orbit to enable the crew to transfer to a clean vessel through a decontamination chamber.
While it’s good to know that someone is taking the safety of human missions to Mars seriously, to say that all life forms should be avoided on Mars is a little ridiculous, in my humble opinion. What’s the worst that could happen? Couple of life forms stow away on board the Mars rocket, mingle with earthbound chums on arrival back on Earth, and within a decade or so life as we know it ceases to exist, the Earth overrun with forty-foot, ugly green guys.
Can’t be much worse than sitting around in a stuffy office on a Friday, can it?