NASA’s announcement last week of clinching evidence that liquid water exists on Mars may doom any chance of building a colony on the Red Planet. It’s not the liquid water that hides in Martian sublayers and at times escapes to the surface or near surface of the planet that’s the problem. It’s what may be in the water.
Martian microbes that may have found a way to survive in that water could pose an ethical and biological roadblock to people from Earth planning to settle permanently on our neighboring planet. If the Martians are there, no matter how small, and we do decide to permanently colonize the planet, there’s a good chance one of us, the native population or the settlement, is not going to survive.
Scientists have been striving to find life somewhere off Earth, and last week’s news raised hopes that conditions on Mars, despite its environmental extremes, could allow microbial life forms to survive. Yet in nearly the same breath that they expressed increased hope of finding life on Mars, NASA scientists also stressed the importance native water could have for astronauts who set foot on Mars.
Martian water “may be an important resource for future human explorers and inhabitants of Mars, and decrease the cost and increase the resilience of human activity on the Red Planet,” said discovery team member Mary Beth Wilhelm of NASA’s Ames Research Center during Monday’s news conference. But will human explorers find a way to share that water with Martian microbes?