Dissecting The NASA Announcement of Water on Mars

ocean pond

There are implications for the existence of life on the planet today, because any liquid water raises the possibility that microbes could also be present. And for future astronauts on Mars, the identification of water supplies near the surface would make it easier for them to “live off the land”.

Water means life! Hooray! And drinking water for astronauts. Hooray!

An interesting consequence of the findings is that space agencies will now have some extra thinking to do about where they send future landers and rovers.

Right? Cuz yer gonna want to get right on in there to scoop it up!

Current internationally agreed rules state that missions should be wary of going to places on Mars where there is likely to be liquid water.

Wait, what? Why? Isn’t that the whole mission? Buzz Aldrin gotta drink!

A UK space agency expert on Mars landing sites, Dr Peter Grindrod, told BBC News: “Planetary protection states that we can’t go anywhere there is liquid water because we can’t sterilise our spacecraft well enough to guarantee we won’t contaminate these locations. So if an RSL is found within the landing zone of a probe, then you can’t land there.”

Huh.? Wha-? Okay. So what you’re saying is, we’ll never know if there’s life or send astronauts to drink the water?

Why are we looking for life in the first place if it’s illegal to be within a certain range of it? We could accidentally have stumbled into it. We could have landed on it! Our toxins could be airborne and invading underground layers of life right now!

It would be apropos here to point out the absurd irony of Western colonizers worried about contaminating life on every planet but the one they’re living on except there isn’t one. There isn’t one because the second that rule about not getting too close gets in the way of “progress”, they will change the rule. Or Americans will say “That’s a U.N. rule – we’re above all that. ‘Murica, damn it!”

For all of our “enlightened” Star Trek principles, our practices look more like… well… like the action scenes of Star Trek. The best of us is always kept in principle. In ideals. The actuality is, this Western colonizing mind divides things into properties, into yours/mine, thereby creating an enemy out of you and a desire for something I want–what’s yours. Upon this foundation it builds an economic system, which necessarily devolves into a wartime economy and, if we don’t live in smaller clans but in larger nations, eats up the planet for “resources,” i.e., other things I want.

Or I could be wrong about the wartime economy and the devouring of resources. Those might not be inevitable outcomes. They might only be natural outcomes of the system we’ve built. You know… the one trying to colonize Mars. The one we’re actually living in right now.

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All quotes taken from Martian salt streaks ‘painted by liquid water’, By Jonathan Amos, BBC Science Correspondent. http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-34379284

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2 thoughts on “Dissecting The NASA Announcement of Water on Mars

  1. Edward Scissorhands Explores Mars

    The mere suggestion water may flow and pool on the surface of Mars has created a sensation. Water is a critical requirement for life and for years NASA scientists have searched diligently for it. “Follow the water” was the explicit strategy for an entire series of trailblazing Mars missions (http://mars.nasa.gov/programmissions/overview/).

    If water exists on Mars living microorganisms might be in it (http://www.nature.com/news/why-hunting-for-life-in-martian-water-will-be-a-tricky-task-1.18450). Finding living indigenous microbes on Mars would be momentous because it would strongly suggest life emerged independently and persisted at two separate locations or that life forms can travel enormous distances across space to seed new environments.

    A fascinating twist to this story is that NASA may be precluded from exploring the sites on Mars most likely to harbor life. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 stipulates that nations exploring other solar system sites must avoid contaminating them and NASA has dutifully established a formal program to ensure planetary protection measures are developed and implemented (http://planetaryprotection.nasa.gov/about). The problem for NASA is that even stringently controlled clean rooms are populated with bacteria (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/09/science/09clea.html) and the probes already sent to the red planet almost certainly brought along some fugitive terrestrial bacteria (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/06/science/mars-catharine-conley-nasa-planetary-protection-officer.html). The risk of forward contamination by stowaway microbes has led NASA to restrict its scope of Martian exploration to avoid areas that might harbor life. Although these places are intensely interesting, NASA is proceeding with extraordinary caution and deliberateness in order accomplish the critical scientific objective of testing uncontaminated samples. Recovering living organisms from Martian samples would either be an epic scientific discovery or a hugely expensive embarrassment if it were realized later that humans had brought them there on spacecraft or managed to contaminate them during processing.

    How long will NASA continue to avoid these potentially life-harboring sites? The Mars Curiosity rover may pass within a few miles of one soon (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/06/science/mars-catharine-conley-nasa-planetary-protection-officer.html). Notwithstanding treaties and rules, the pressure to direct Curiosity to take a peek may become irresistible for NASA. A big part of going to Mars in the first place is to discover if life exists there and the general public, deliberately titillated by NASA press releases, may demand action. Whether rovers are permitted to reach them, NASA is planning to send humans to Mars as early as around 20 years from now. Keeping these bold explorers out of the most interesting places on the planet might be tough to sell even though the consequences could be irreversible.

    The problem is we humans live in a cloud of microbes (http://www.newsweek.com/microbial-cloud-aka-auras-are-basically-real-375010) meaning literally everything we touch or even come near will experience some degree of contamination. Perhaps NASA will figure out how to provide astronauts with sterile food and water. However, whatever comes into contact with them or passes through their bodies will be rife with microbes meaning Mars explorers will need to be extremely careful with all wastes to avoid gross contamination of the environment. Despite these problems, NASA will be able to devise ways to sample Martian environments that will enable scientists to recognize the presence of novel indigenous microbes. The primary scientific mission goals will be accomplished.

    Native Americans of the past noticed a plant new to them, broadleaf plantain (Plantago major), was found wherever European colonizers settled. So strong was this association they called plantain “white man’s footprint” (http://www.kingdomplantae.net/commonPlantain.php). If the ultimate invasive species, humans, journey to Mars, there is no doubt as to the ultimate outcome. Call it colonization or contamination, perhaps our characteristic footprints through the cosmos will be a trail of radiation-resistant formerly terrestrial bacteria and fungi. Like Edward Scissorhands, our touch is problematic

  2. Pingback: War of the Worlds – Devising the Zoning Plan for Invading Mars | JayVay

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