Astrobiology | 19 Sep 2017
JD Rummel and CA Conley
While it is anticipated that future human missions to Mars will increase the amount of biological and organic contamination that might be distributed on that planet, robotic missions continue to grow in capability and complexity, requiring precautions to be taken now to protect Mars, and particularly areas of Mars that might be Special Regions. Such precautionary cleanliness requirements for spacecraft have evolved over the course of the space age, as we have learned more about planetary environments, and are the subject of regular deliberations and decisions sponsored by the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR). COSPAR’s planetary protection policy is maintained as an international consensus standard for spacecraft cleanliness that is recognized by the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. In response to the paper presented in this issue by Fairén et al. (2017), we examine both their concept of evidence for possible life on Mars and their logic in recommending that spacecraft cleanliness requirements be relaxed to access Special Regions “before it is too late.” We find that there are shortcomings in their plans to look for evidence of life on Mars, that they do not support their contention that appropriate levels of spacecraft cleanliness are unaffordable, that there are major risks in assuming martian life could be identified by nucleic acid sequence comparison (especially if those sequences are obtained from a Special Region contaminated with Earth life), and that the authors do not justify their contention that exploration with dirty robots, now, is preferable to the possibility that later contamination will be spread by human exploration. We also note that the potential effects of contaminating resources and environments essential to future human occupants of Mars are both significant and not addressed by Fairén et al. (2017). Key Words: Mars-Special Region-Mission-Life detection-Planetary protection. Astrobiology 17, xxx-xxx.
* Data courtesy of Altmetric.com