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Study: Exploration of Special Regions needed to find alien life on Mars

NASA's Mars 2020 rover looks at the horizon in this artist’s concept. The mission will not only seek out and study an area likely to have been habitable in the distant past, but it will take the next, bold step in robotic exploration of the Red Planet by seeking signs of past microbial life itself.

NASA’s Mars 2020 rover looks at the horizon in this artist’s concept. The mission will not only seek out and study an area likely to have been habitable in the distant past, but it will take the next bold step in the robotic exploration of the Red Planet by seeking signs of past microbial life itself. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

An international team of researchers has conducted a study endorsing the exploration of the so-called Special Regions on Mars. They call for the relaxation of the planetary protection policy in order to allow sending robotic explorers to the restricted areas that could potentially host microbial life.

The Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) defines “Special Regions” as zones within which terrestrial organisms are likely to propagate, or, in the case of the Red Planet, areas having a high potential for the existence of extant Martian life forms. However, planetary protection policy puts strict constraints on the exploration of these zones with the aim of protecting the Red Planet from terrestrial biological contamination – in this case, those coming from Earth.

Given that so far none of the spacecraft missions to Mars have explored the Special Regions, a group of scientists led by Alberto G. Fairén of the Center of Astrobiology in Madrid, Spain, advocate for changes in the planetary protection policy.

“Planetary protection policies are one of the main reasons why we have not been searching for life on Mars during the last 40 years. Relaxing the policies will allow for resuming a serious biological exploration of the planet,” Fairén told Astrowatch.net.

Major evolutionary events of life on Earth represented together with the possible trajectory of a hypothetical martian biosphere. The origin of life could have occurred on Earth, on Mars, or on both planets, and then transferred from one to the other.

Major evolutionary events of life on Earth represented together with the possible trajectory of a hypothetical Martian biosphere. The origin of life could have occurred on Earth, on Mars, or on both planets, and then transferred from one to the other. Image Credit: Alberto G. Fairén et al., 2017.

Fairén and his colleagues see a paradox in the implementation of the current planetary protection policy. In their study, they underline that this policy aims to prevent contamination of celestial bodies to avoid their harmful contamination, but on the other hand, it proclaims that the conduct of scientific investigations of possible extraterrestrial life forms, precursors, and remnants must not be jeopardized.

The researchers suggest that the current cleanliness standards required in order to enter Special Regions on Mars are too high what results in missing many opportunities to explore these areas today. For instance, NASA’s Curiosity rover was recently forbidden to inspect a readily accessible recurring slope lineae to confirm whether they contain briny liquid water. Thus another robotic mission needs to be sent to Mars in order to do what Curiosity could do presently in Gale Crater.

“Protection is needed, but not the current overprotection. Current policies put Special Regions just out of the reach of any biological exploration. We advocate for relaxing the policies and allowing access to Special Regions to robots with Curiosity-like cleanliness level,” Fairén said.

Fairén’s team entitled their study “Searching for Life on Mars Before It Is Too Late” as they emphasize how much important is the quick implementation of a revised planetary protection policy. Given that NASA’s goal is to send humans to Mars in 2030s, there is not much time to determine whether any indigenous life exists on the Red Planet before astronauts set foot on the Martian surface, exposing this planet to an unprecedented level of terrestrial bioburden.

“What we highlight here is a problem of timing: if we had still 50 or 70 years with no forecasted human presence on Mars ahead of us, we could sympathize with more conservative approaches for searching for extant martian life, but manned missions are already planned and budgeted for less than 20 years from today,” the researchers wrote in the paper.

The authors of the study propose a relaxation of the current policy by mainly allowing immediate access to the Special Regions for vehicles with the cleanliness level of Curiosity, NASA’s Mars 2020 Rover, or ESA’s ExoMars mission.

“ExoMars is likewise banned to come close to Special Regions, with the result that it will be cleared to search for life everywhere on Mars except in the places where we suspect life might exist,” Fairén noted.

The study suggests that it would be necessary to reevaluate the current restrictions, making sure that the spacecraft cleanliness level for biological reconnaissance and the spacecraft cleanliness level for planetary protection are properly set to ensure searching for microbial life on the Martian soil.

Moreover, the researchers urge that our existing laboratory robotic technology is made flight ready in the search for biochemical evidence of life. They also support the idea of the development of robotic nucleic acid sequencing instrumentation for future in-situ detection and sample return mission.

 

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Tomasz Nowakowski is the owner of Astro Watch, one of the premier astronomy and science-related blogs on the internet. Nowakowski reached out to SpaceFlight Insider in an effort to have the two space-related websites collaborate. Nowakowski’s generous offer was gratefully received with the two organizations now working to better relay important developments as they pertain to space exploration.

Reader Comments

This is a very informative article, in that it addresses the underlying reasons why we’ve had overwhelmingly negative results in the “search for life” on Mars. We build billion dollar rovers with various life detection systems, but send them only to areas where life is least likely. This planetary protection policy needs serious re-examination and modification. Maybe we the taxpaying members of the scientific community should simply say no more rovers until this policy is changed and/or relaxed? Why spend the money to send a sophisticated probe and not let it do the job for which it was designed?

There is considerable science to be derived from continued exploration of Mars, but, the lure of funding and sexiness of life potential on Mars appears to be so great so to continue to play this game of proposing it as serious. The only life that will be found on Mars is that which was deposited by Earth effluence or Earth exploration, not intrinsic to any Mars development.

Do the science, but be honest about it.

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