Permanent Human Settlement of the Earth, Space and Ocean Frontiers

Sunday, March 05, 2006


Art work by Zazie

Ralph Buttigieg

Sydney, New South Wales

The confirmation of a “wet” Mars would be a dramatic discovery for it would greatly increase the chance of finding life on the Red Planet. Most have heard of the famous Mars meteorite which was discovered in 1996 and appeared to have fossils. That evidence is still being disputed but recently found meteorites are providing supporting evidence.

However what about Martian life today, not just in the past? In 1976 the Viking lander was sent to Mars to search for life but provided inclusive results. Gilbert Levin, the scientist who built Viking's Labeled Release experiment, is convinced that his experiment did discover Martian life. More recently, there has been other tantalizing evidence such as possible chlorophyll at the Pathfinder site, and Mars Express found methane, indicating the possible existence of methanogens. This researcher even makes a strong case that Spirit has photographed actual life.

More information is being sent from the various spacecraft at Mars, and I recommend this site for the latest news, but personally I find the sum of the evidence increasingly convincing. However space agencies are going to require more then photographs and gas traces before they announce the discovery of life. Such a discovery would be the most momentous scientific find of our time. They will therefore be very cautious in any announcement. The current rovers were not designed to search for life but the Mars Science Laboratory due for launch in 2009 will, so lets wait and see what that turns up.

The confirmation of life would have enormous consequences for human expeditions. There would be the real danger of contamination. Pathogens have evolved to attack specific hosts so its unlikely Mars bugs would endanger humans directly, but every Australian knows what damage an introduced species can do to a native ecology. The risks of some super tough Martian organism running wild in the much richer Earth environment should concern everybody. SETI astronomer Seth Shostak, explains the problem here.

On the other hand a Martian biosphere would be of huge interest not only to biologist, but to commercial biotech and pharmaceutical companies. Something like 25% of prescription drugs in the USA come from plants. A living Mars would be a fantastic opportunity for bio-prospectors. Dennis has written of the need to provide a clear reason to go to Mars this would be a very good one.

There is going to be a need to provide a way to protect Earth from any dangers of contamination yet still allow us to reap the benefits. Especially when long term human exploration takes place and large amount of material are returned. What is required is a quarantine station where Martian samples can be examined in safety, An excellent location would be the the Moon. It is distant from Earth and has no ecology to danger. There are other reasons for a Lunar outpost, but secure exobiology lab to examine returned samples will be required. The Moon is the perfect location.