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Big News Coming?

Looks like JPL is gearing up for a big announcement next week on results from Spirit and Opportunity.

The discovery of water in the soil wouldn’t be all that surprising, since we already know there is plenty of water on Mars (the novelty would be in its ubiquity, specifically in low latitudes where the conventional wisdom says it shouldn’t exist in near-surface soil). Such an announcement, while certainly a scientific coup, wouldn’t have much impact on space exploration. The public won’t rush to spend tens of billions of dollars in a crash program to send humans to Mars by the end of the decade, for example, just because water is found in surface soils.

If the announcement is life-related, however, who knows? The spherules, filaments, and rotini have raised the life question, but can we be certain it is life from just the imagery (assuming it doesn’t move, change shape, procreate, create expressionist sculptures, perform a tensor calculus solution, etc., between frames)? At the least, it would mean greater public support for spending money on robotic exploration — bigger, more sophisticated, and more numerous rovers, for example, to return to these sites and perform conclusive tests for life. Less likely, but still possible, is that it could generate increased public support for sending humans to Mars, either on the Moon-Mars timeline or even on an accelerated schedule (skipping all but the shakedown activities on the Moon, for instance).

Unfortunately, I suspect that if indications of life are announced, it will mean the quarantine of Mars, for the long term. Rather than risk further forward contamination, future landers would likely be terminated (aside from maybe an additional lander sent to confirm that life is indeed present). Future orbiters might be terminated as well, to prevent any contaminated spacecraft from inadvertently reaching the surface. Manned missions would be out of the question, not only because we humans are walking microbial menageries ourselves and would of necessity bring Earthlife to Mars with us, but also because of the unknown “risk” of backward contamination via the returning astronauts.

It would be interesting to find life on Mars, but it would be something of a mixed blessing if as a result of such a discovery we lost the only other planet in the solar system that we could settle in the near term.

UPDATE: Apparently it wasn’t clear, but the “quarantine” scenario was intended as a lament about what could happen, not what would automatically follow from a discovery of signs of life on Mars.

13 comments to Big News Coming?

  • News in 24-48 hours.

    Your suspicions (no more landers, orbiters, manned missions) are just plain goofy. You apparently have little or no practical experience in spacecraft design, mission operations, or space biology.

    Too bad some people only see other planets as just places to settle and build more strip malls.

  • billg

    If something living is found on Mars, some environmental ideologues will argue that the planet be quarantined, preserving its status quo.

    But, that makes no sense. The argument would potentially apply, with as little logic, here on this planet. Should Cro-Magnons stayed out of Europe? Should people have travelled across Asia only to stop just beyond the Bering land bridge once they realized that North America was full of life?

    Managing Earth’s, or Mars’, environment doesn’t mean preserving it as a musueum.

    Going somewhere — exploring and, sometimes, migrating — is what humans do. If life is found on Mars, it should convince us that we are not unique and hasten our efforts to keep going until we find life that can hold a conversation.

  • Oh, please, Keith. Grow up a little.

    Perhaps I didn’t make it crystal clear, but the “quarantine” scenario I see as a possibility would not result from our lack of technical capability to handle the forward contamination problem, for example, but from the hysterical public response from certain quarters.

  • Your prediction is still goofy.

  • “Goofy”? Is that a sophisticated astrobiological term?

  • mars excitement has an interesting article on the recent “buzz” around the JPL facilities. It’s worth a quick read, though the last few paragraphs with comments from Gilbert Levin are sort of over the top. See also: Mars Blog ATSNN MainlyMartian…

  • Bill White

    No strip malls for me, Keith. 🙂

    I am partial to the idea of covering narrow vertical ravines with aerogel and glass, then sealing off the ends and building condos into the cliff walls. Each “condo” can have its own back up airlock for emergencies yet otherwise the ravine is open air at 35% Terran sea level pressure.

    (Partial pressures carefully managed, of course.)

    Then hang some of those cool solid state sulfur lights down into the ravine and “mine the brine” and distill for a nice pond on the floor of the ravine.

    Strip malls are sooooooh 20th century. . .

  • Life on Mars!

    Or water near the surface. Or evidence that there once was a lake where Opportunity is now rooting around. Whatever it is, Something big will be announced tomorrow by NASA:Significant findings from NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity, now explori…

  • Justin Elzie

    Nah…there wont be a quaratine. Humankind would not allow that. We need to settle Mars (Strip Malls)?!? They already do decontamination but I am sure that it will become a much more talked about topic, especially when in the near future we return a sample of Mars soil back to earth.

  • I, for one, welcome our tasty new extraterrestrial overlords.

  • Giles F

    Just take a minute to think how much we could do on Mars for less money than shipping three pieces of meat there. A constellation of sats, a herd of bots and a swarm of aeros at least. The suits have decided to burn the world’s favourite telescope because the risk to humans is unacceptable but spending $nn Billion (or $nnn even) will get the green light? No way, its vapournomics.

    Radioisotope powered bots could work steadily for years and years with the human factor safe on Earth, dreaming up new angles, honing code, retasking to investigate anomalies at a whim over month-long timescales, analysing and feeding back and analysing again. I’ll take that over embedding history’s fanciest coffin in a dust plain.

    And the contamination argument only stands up in pure science terms, and Joe Public is paying for the Mars candy, and Joe is OK with logging and drilling in paradise here on Earth. The next wave will have to be partly commercial as the Western taxpayer is already looking at a big conflict, weather and resource bill and just about everyone else is hungry, thirsty or fighting to survive. Hopefully China and India’s middle class can afford a human visit before I die but I’d like to see some cola-sponsored bot science back from Mars just in case. I have no problem with a rover scratching out a Pepsi logo as long as it’s carrying instruments as well; I do have a problem with the huge spend to land humans anytime soon.

    BTW congrats on your blog, I enjoyed it.

  • Bill White

    Thoughts on “quarantine” at least in the context of forward contamination, us contaminating them.

    If the remnants of a Martian Gaia – – born a hundred million years ago on a warmer, wetter Mars – – are indeed hanging on today deep underground, or in scattered localized sites, then it seems to me that our going there and preserving what we can is the most ethical course of action.

    Otherwise, what future might those microbes possibly have? Mars is dead, geologically, and therefore, these remnants have zero evolutionary future – – IMHO as always – – therefore there is no ethical reason not to collect samples and preserve as much as we can.