Oct 072015

Will explorers and settlers on Mars supplant any native life that may already exist there? Image courtesy NASA.

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?

The natives are tiny

“What if there are Martians?” Jill Tarter, a pioneer in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, asked me back in early August. The interview was for an article I was writing TheAtlantic.com on the extended search for Earth’s twin out among the stars, but the former director of the Center for SETI Research admitted our first evidence of extraterrestrial life may be in our own solar system.

“What if we indeed figure out a way to explore Mars, particularly sub-surface Mars … and we discover an independent life form? What rights do these microbes have?”

Whats the ethical thing to do? Do we create a preserve on Mars to maintain this precious, different biology? Do we ignore it? Do we walk over it as we typically do on this planet? Or do we in fact back off all together.”

Advocates for Mars exploration and settlement already talk of using Mars as a lifeboat should some disaster ever happen to Earth, and hope to begin terraforming the planet. If settlers did begin terraforming the planet, “It will probably be inhospitable to the natives,” Tarter said. “Whats the ethical thing to do? Do we create a preserve on Mars to maintain this precious, different biology? Do we ignore it? Do we walk over it as we typically do on this planet? Or do we in fact back off all together. ‘Nope, this is life. This is totally different biology from which we can learn a great deal.’

“Once you have two examples of something, you can begin to piece apart what’s necessary, what’s contingent for life …. There will be those who argue for that path of action. I can’t predict how scientists will come down, how the scientists, the politicians or the funders of this enterprise will make these decisions in the future. It should be a global decision.”

War of the Unseen Worlds

If native life does exist below the Martian surface and the people of Earth do come to Mars as unintended invaders, the battle for the planet could be fought on a microscopic scale, Martian microbes vs. Earth germs. Yet if Martian life developed independently from that on Earth, settlers may have no biological interaction with the alien life-form, and we can co-habitate with the Martians.

But if the Martians are us, if life began on Mars and migrated to Earth through meteor strikes, fatal interaction could indeed be possible.

It is exciting news that NASA has found convincing evidence that liquid water, albeit salty and briny, does exist under certain conditions on Mars. But as the excitement dies down among scientists, the news media, politicians and the rest of us anxious to reach Mars, we should realize that putting boots on the Red Planet has just become more complicated.


If We find Life on Mars, is Mars Off Limits?

The Atlantic: After Intelligent Life is Discovered

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