Extraterrestrial Life

The Most Earth-Friendly Parts Of Mars Are Off-Limits To Earthlings

Imagine you're a kid, and after months of begging, your mom finally agrees to take you to Six Flags. But Batman: The Ride is off-limits. And so is Hurricane Harbor. And so is Raging Bull. Actually, the only ride she'll let you go on is the Teacups. Also, the Teacups are full of poison gas. Well, swap out Six Flags for Mars, and that's basically what the Committee on Space Research is saying to every prospective space explorer.

Signs Of Life

Okay, maybe we should take a step back before going full temper tantrum. But it is true that back in 1967, the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) determined that it was vitally important that we don't end up accidentally contaminating extraterrestrial bodies like the moon and Mars. It was called the COSPAR Planetary Protection Policy, and though its policies have evolved, its basic goals are the same.

See, the issue is that though Mars is by-and-large incredibly inhospitable to Earthly life, it also might have once been home to Martian microbes. What's more, those teeny aliens might still be thriving today. The last thing we want is to confuse the issue by introducing Earth microbes — or worse, wipe out the native population like a bunch of single-cell cane toads.

To prevent this from happening, COSPAR has determined a certain set of parameters for what they call "special regions", where either Earthlings would be well-suited to survive, or where aliens might already be living. These regions might be determined by the presence of water, or by the content of the atmosphere. In any case, they are strictly and legally off-limits — at least, until it can be determined that the pioneers are free of microbial hangers-on, or that the region is free of pre-existing populations (extinct or otherwise).

Looking For Life In All The Wrong Places

So here's the thing: we actually haven't found any Special Regions on Mars. That doesn't mean they aren't there, just that they haven't yet become apparent from our limited ability to scope them out. But scientists do suspect that they could be out there, which is why it's so important to figure out ahead of time exactly what we should be looking for.

We've already told you about the job of Planetary Protection Officer, and figuring out which places are safe for us to bring our dirty microbes is exactly up their alley. But here's hoping that any aliens out there are just as concerned with our safety. Otherwise we might all fall victim to some extraterrestrial cane toads of our own.

Microbial Life On Mars

Written by Reuben Westmaas August 21, 2017

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