By Mike Wall | Space.com
Humanity has long dreamed of putting boots on Mars, but those boots have the potential to stomp all over any lifeforms that may exist on the Red Planet.
A seething, swarming mass of 100 trillion microbes will accompany every astronaut who lands on Mars. This diverse “microbiome” has evolved with humans for eons and provides a number of services, from helping people digest their food to keeping pathogenic bacteria at bay.
While these microbes are intimately tied to humans, many of them will jump ship if transported to the Martian surface — with unknown consequences for a planet that may or may not host life of its own.
“We have the responsibility to Mars, I think — even if it’s just Martian microbes — not to kill them by the act of detecting them,” Cynthia Phillips of the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute said at the SETICon 2 meeting in June in Santa Clara, Calif. [5 Bold Claims of Alien Life]
“If you have human astronauts there,” Phillips added, “there’s no way to sterilize them. They’re spewing out thousands of microbes every second. So it’s a real problem.”
Location, location, location
Space agencies around the world are already thinking about ways to minimize the contamination risks posed by manned Mars missions, even though the first footsteps on the Red Planet are perhaps decades away.
In fact, they already have a set of guidelines to follow — a rough protocol drawn up in 2008 by the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR), which is part of the International Council for Science. The top priority of the COSPAR policy is to protect Earth from any possible “back contamination” from Mars, but it aims to help protect the Red Planet from Earth life as well.