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We really, really can’t contaminate other planets with Earth microbes

Published Jul 11th, 2020 2:08PM EDT
planetary protection
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

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  • A pair of new NASA directives tweaks Planetary Protection policies to allow for human exploration of the Moon and Mars
  • Preventing contamination of other worlds is vitally important to making new discoveries and not changing the planets or worlds that we visit.
  • Bringing microbes from Earth to Mars or the Moon could have big impacts on our ability to find true extraterrestrial life.

NASA is eager to explore other worlds and, if possible, discover evidence of past or present life somewhere in our solar system. It would be a monumental achievement and rewrite history books in the process, but there’s one thing that NASA definitely wants to avoid while it explores, and that’s contaminating other worlds with life from Earth.

To that end, the space agency just issued new directives to bolster its already strict planetary protection policies. The goal is to ensure that when humans head to other worlds — including the Moon and Mars — we don’t accidentally bring microbial life with us or, on the off-chance that there is something alive on Mars or the Moon, that we don’t bring that life back with us.

There are a number of reasons why it makes sense to have strict policies to prevent interplanetary contamination. For starters, if we’re looking for microbial life on a planet like Mars, we don’t want to accidentally “discover” something that humans brought with them. It’s just messy, from a scientific perspective, to try to figure out which microbes originated on Earth and which ones are actual Martian life.

The same goes for bringing microbes back from other worlds. If science fiction has taught us anything it’s that bringing extraterrestrial life back to Earth is bad news. No, things probably won’t play out like in the Aliens movies, but imagine accidentally bringing back a Martian virus that has laid dormant or locked in ice for millions of years. Humans would have no protection against such an organism, and things could go south in a hurry.

“It’s vital that NASA’s regulations remain synchronized with our capabilities and plans,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement. “This [directive] will enable the human exploration of Mars, creating new opportunities for awe-inspiring science and innovative commercial activities. I believe science and human exploration are complimentary endeavors and I’m excited to see these policy reforms open up a new era of discovery.”

NASA plans to get humans back on the Moon by 2024, and though that deadline has raised the eyebrows of many in the scientific community, the space agency is moving forward with 2024 as its goal. In the not-so-distant future, NASA envisions also sending human explorers to Mars, though that likely won’t be possible until the 2030s or perhaps later. In the meantime, it’s important that the policies in place emphasize safety and severely limit any potential for contamination of other worlds as well as our own.

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