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Scientists argue that contaminating Mars with microbes might be a good thing

Published Oct 1st, 2019 10:58AM EDT

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At some point in the not-so-distant future, mankind will embark on a mission to another planet. That planet will be Mars, the largely barren, dusty rock that NASA and other scientific agencies around the world have been studying for decades. When humans eventually land on the planet, it might be the first time a living creature has set foot on Mars, but a new research paper suggests that we take measures to ensure something gets there before us.

At present, scientists can’t say for certain whether or not any life exists on Mars. Microbial life here on Earth has shown the ability to survive in extreme conditions, and it’s still possible something is alive on the Red Planet. But even if it’s not, the researchers behind this new study say we should send microscopic organisms to the nearby world right now to give it a jump start.

NASA takes great care to prevent bacteria and other microorganisms from hitching a ride on its spacecraft. Mars rovers are landers are assembled in sterilized rooms and cleanliness is a top priority. The fear is that if these extraordinary steps were not taken, bacteria from Earth could find a new home on Mars, and mankind isn’t ready to be seeding life to other worlds just yet.

Or are we?

In their paper, the trio of researchers argue that mankind should drastically rethink our approach to spreading life to other planets, perhaps even intentionally delivering microbial life to Mars and elsewhere.

The scientists’ argument is multi-faceted. For starters, the work that goes into ensuring a spacecraft is “clean” before it leaves Earth is painstaking, and probably not worth the trouble. Earth, the researchers say, should serve as a model for other worlds we hope to colonize, and that means microbial life will end up there anyway.

Indeed, microorganisms are vital to life here on Earth, and there’s a whole lot of “behind the scenes” work being done by microscopic life that keeps us alive and kicking. However, to suggest that we intentionally seed that life to other planets in advance of our own travels is incredibly controversial, and the risks of messing things up may be high.

The paper isn’t likely to lead to a revamp of planetary protection policies any time soon, but it’s definitely food for thought and contributes to the larger discussion of what we as a species intend to do with space-faring capabilities.