War of the Worlds – Devising the Zoning Plan for Invading Mars

War of the Worlds – Devising the Zoning Plan for Invading Mars

by Guest Blogger,
Tyler Kokjohn, PhD. 

MarsSpaceX plans to land an unmanned capsule on Mars a few years from now (1).  The ultimate goal is planetary colonization and missions with humans might follow as early as the middle of the next decade.  If all goes as planned the company could be hard at work on the red planet 10 years or more ahead of NASA.

A few technical details need to be clarified.  To begin, NASA officials may wish to establish precisely where on the Mars the SpaceX engineers intend to land.  This is important because The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 requires nations exploring the solar system to adopt reliable measures to avoid contaminating them.  NASA has a formal program to develop and implement protection measures to conform to this agreement (2).  How the proposed SpaceX mission(s) will fit into the established planetary protection framework and coordinate with NASA exploration goals is unclear.

Mars is so interesting scientifically because of the likelihood life emerged there independently and the chance viable organisms are still present today.  Because of the risk of forward contamination by terrestrial microbes, spacecraft landing on Mars are cleaned exhaustively.  However, even the most scrupulously operated clean rooms harbor some microbes (3) and probes already sent to the red planet have almost certainly brought along a few fugitive terrestrial bacteria (4).   Scientists essentially know nothing about the Martian biosphere, but there is a strong possibility hitchhiking terrestrial microbes might find conditions on the red planet are quite hospitable.  This threat of contamination by stowaway microbes has led NASA to delineate Martian Special Regions where conditions might be warm or wet enough to theoretically support life as we know it today (5) and restrict the scope of explorations in them for the time being.  Finding relict evidence of Martian life or living indigenous species would be a momentous discovery, but NASA has been proceeding with extraordinary deliberateness in order accomplish the critical scientific objective of testing pristine samples.

SpaceX will probably be most interested in exploring Martian locations where water, a critical resource for future colonists, could be present.  While the initial surveillance missions could probably be done in a way that would satisfy planetary protection obligations, human colonization in Martian Special Regions would be impossible to reconcile with the goal of avoiding contamination with terrestrial microbes.  Humans are literally enveloped in a cloud of microbes (6) meaning everything we touch, excrete or come near becomes contaminated which will make the future Mars pioneers the high-tech interplanetary reincarnation of Johnny Appleseed.

Private enterprise is challenging the traditional ways of exploring outer space and NASA scientists are now seeing their plans and timetables pushed hard by a corporate collaborator turned agile competitor.  However, human colonization of Mars seems incompatible with on-going Special Region preservation efforts.  Will NASA be able to dictate or negotiate when and where SpaceX craft may land?  Or will SpaceX assert it needs no license to explore and ultimately subdivide the red planet into cities as it deems fit and profitable?  Will NASA investigators be forced to hasten their sampling efforts before scientifically valuable untouched areas are occupied by humans or their devices?  Realistically, can NASA hope to keep pace with private companies with deep pockets and driving ambitions?  What will be the fate of NASA if SpaceX explorers discover the first definitive proof of life on Mars?

SpaceX is poised to invade Mars.  However, raw ambition enabled by technological prowess has far outrun scientific knowledge.  Eager to achieve a dream, the effort might unleash entities visible and invisible that could change the Martian biosphere or erase it altogether.  Who is in charge of devising a zoning plan for Mars?  That question must be answered soon because the invasive terrestrial species known as Homo sapiens never travels alone and nothing is the same after it arrives.


(1)   K. Chang. SpaceX says it plans to send a probe to Mars. New York Times, 27 April 2016.http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/28/science/mars-spacex-dragon-landing-2018.html?_r=0


(2)   NASA Office of Planetary Protection http://planetaryprotection.nasa.gov/about.


(3)   W. E. Leary.  In NASA’s sterile areas, plenty of robust bacteria. New York Times, 9 October 2007.http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/09/science/09clea.html


(4)   K. Chang.  Mars is pretty clean. Her job at NASA is to keep it that way.  New York Times, 5 October 2015.  http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/06/science/mars-catharine-conley-nasa-planetary-protection-officer.html


(5)   P. Rettberg et al. 2016. Planetary protection and Mars special regions – a suggestion for updating the definition. Astrobiology 16(2):119-125. http://online.liebertpub.com/doi/10.1089/ast.2016.1472


(6)   Z. Schlanger. Your microbiome extends in a microbial cloud around you, like an aura. Newsweek, 22 September 2015.  http://www.newsweek.com/microbial-cloud-aka-auras-are-basically-real-375010


Also of interest on JayVay – Dissecting the NASA Announcement of Water on Marshttps://jayvay.wordpress.com/2015/09/28/dissecting-the-nasa-announcement-of-water-on-mars/




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