The scientific desire to search for life on Mars is coming into conflict with the need to prevent any such life from endangering the astronauts or the Earth. The National Research Council (NRC) is recommending that safety take precedence over research and that missions to Mars should try to avoid encountering any possible life forms there. The NRC is part of the National Academy of Sciences, an independent agency chartered by Congress to provide advice to the government on scientific issues.
"While the threat to Earth's ecosystem from the release of Martian biological agents is very low, the risk of harmful effects is not zero and cannot be ignored," the council says.The NRC has urged NASA to establish "zones of minimal biological risk" by sending automated probes to test for organic chemicals or other life forms. Astronauts would then be sent to the areas with the lowest possibility of encountering life.
Mars is known to once have had a lot of water on its surface, making it a prime candidate for life forms such as bacteria, which many scientists believe could still exist in the Martian soil. A Mars landing craft would become coated with dust, and astronauts walking on the planet to do scientific work would bring some dust back inside with them, as happened on the trips to the moon. To prevent a return of this material to Earth, the NRC suggests a transfer in space where the returning craft is docked to another vehicle and the astronauts are transferred in a sterile atmosphere. The original spacecraft would then be abandoned in space. NASA "might be faced with requiring quarantine and surveillance of returning astronauts until it is determined that a threat no longer exists."
The NRC also recommends that NASA should determine the size, shape and abrasiveness of the rocks at potential landing sites. An unmanned Mars lander needs to study the adhesiveness of the dust and the potential radiation exposure at planned landing areas. A particular concern is hexavalent chromium, a rare material on Earth which, studies suggest, may be present in larger amounts on Mars.
The question the taxpayers who fund NASA might ask is this: Why go to Mars if we don?t look for life there?
To see photos of possible life on Mars, read ?Dark Matter, Missing Planets and New Comets? by Tom Van Flandern, click here.
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