NASA is working hard to bring humans to Mars in the near future, but it could have accidentally sent other life forms to the Red Planet in the meantime.
According to Cornell geneticist Christopher Mason, who wrote for the BBC, NASA takes extreme care to clean its spacecraft piece by piece as they are assembled, but it’s impossible to get the number of microbes in an area down to zero. While his research is only theoretical, there is a growing body of evidence that NASA’s exploration of Mars has already contaminated it with resilient and potentially dangerous microbial life.
In other words, there’s a real risk that scientists will eventually find evidence of life on Mars — that we accidentally brought there ourselves.
In fact, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab’s (JPL) clean rooms may unintentionally serve as a sort of proving ground for microbial life, providing a challenging environment in which only the toughest bugs can survive.
Mason’s own research involved scanning the JPL for DNA, and he discovered microbes capable of latching onto metal surfaces and tolerating both radiation and extreme colds — all of which could help a bug hitch a ride to space and actually survive the ordeal.
“These findings have implications for a form of planetary protection called ‘forward contamination,’” Mason wrote in the BBC. “This is where we might bring something (accidentally or on purpose) to another planet. It is important to ensure the safety and preservation of any life that might exist elsewhere in the universe, since new organisms can wreak havoc when they arrive at a new ecosystem.”
Of course, the same rovers or landers that may have brought life to Mars could mistake them for brand-new alien microbes, Mason suggests, citing the fact that microbes carried into space from Earth quickly mutated in the new environment.
“The trials of space travel and unusual environments they encounter will have left their mark and caused them to evolve,” Mason wrote.