2016-08-07. Martians Might Be Real. That makes Mars exploration way more complicated.

posted Aug 19, 2016, 11:55 AM by Alan Gould

By Kevin Carey, WIRED. For GSS A Changing Cosmos chapter 8. Excerpt: History will note that the guy who discovered liquid water on Mars was an undergraduate at the University of Arizona, a 20-year-old who played guitar in a death-metal band and worked in a planetary science lab. ...he noticed something odd: a set of dark streaks in the soil that grew in the Martian summer and shrank in the winter. They seemed to flow down the crater’s slope, like a spill. ...in September of 2015, [NASA] called a big press conference. It confirmed ... That was water in that crater. ...About a month after the press conference, a NASA administrator named Cassie Conley was sitting in her office, staring into her computer screen at a crudely designed website called UFO Sightings Daily. ...The item that Conley had come looking for was a photograph taken by the Curiosity rover and annotated by the website’s author. ...that streak in the soil descending from a crook between two rocks? The guy had labeled it “water.” And it really did look like water. ...It’s looking more and more likely that Mars might already be inhabited—by Martians. Very tiny ones. ...Conley’s full-time job at NASA is to make sure that we don’t royally screw up our first encounter with aliens, however small. Her official title is US planetary protection officer. She’s a kind of interplanetary sheriff, whose main duty is to police the comings and goings of the tiniest Earthlings: microorganisms, which as it turns out are extraordinarily good at hitching rides on spacecraft.  ...Conley’s office serves to prevent NASA from doing to Martians what European explorers did to Native Americans with smallpox.  ...And the third main rationale for Conley’s office is, well, mildly apocalyptic...guarding this planet against potentially virulent alien life. ...when Conley picked up the phone after her visit to UFO Sightings Daily, it wasn’t to spur Curiosity’s team on toward that possible water. It was to keep the rover away from it. ...Because it’s impossible to eliminate all of the microbes from a Mars rover, even the most stringent decontamination protocols are defined in ratios and probabilities. The most Conley can do is make sure there are no more than 0.03 microbes per square meter of spacecraft surface area. That was the standard applied to the Viking mission in 1976.  ...Conley’s job is, by nature, a pretty lonely one. She’s a microbiologist in an agency dominated by physicists and engineers, a woman in a field dominated by men, and a sheriff (someone even gave her a joke badge) who stands a head shorter than many of her colleagues.  ...The curiosity rover wasn’t supposed to be high on Conley’s list of worries. NASA had deliberately sent it to Gale Crater, thought to be among the least likely places to harbor life, because the rover was largely built for geological research. She’d helped pick the landing site herself. When Curiosity left Earth in 2011, it was subjected to milder decontamination controls: It was allowed 300 organisms per square meter. Now, trundling around a possibly somewhat damp Gale Crater millions of miles away, Curiosity was very likely infested with tens of thousands of hardy Earth microbes that had survived the violent blastoff and months-long journey through the harsh vacuum of space. All they needed to reanimate and reproduce was the right combination of food, water, and heat. ...Mars 2020, which will land another robot rover much like Curiosity ... will be designed to search for signs of ancient microbial life on Mars and—even more ambitiously—to collect soil samples that can be retrieved by another spacecraft and sent back to Earth. ...observers inside and outside of NASA say they’re in a heated battle with the Office of Planetary Protection over where they can land and what measures they need to take to sterilize their craft before it leaves for Mars....  http://www.wired.com/2016/08/shouldnt-go-mars-might-decimate-martians


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