Searching for Life on Mars Before It Is Too Late

Fairen, A. G., Parro, V., Schulze Makuch, D., Whyte, L. 2017. Searching for Life on Mars Before It Is Too Late. Astrobiology 17, 10, 962-970, DOI: 10.1089/ast.2017.1703

Decades of robotic exploration have confirmed that in the distant past, Mars was warmer and wetter and its surface was habitable. However, none of the spacecraft missions to Mars have included among their scientific objectives the exploration of Special Regions, those places on the planet that could be inhabited by extant martian life or where terrestrial microorganisms might replicate. A major reason for this is because of Planetary Protection constraints, which are implemented to protect Mars from terrestrial biological contamination. At the same time, plans are being drafted to send humans to Mars during the 2030 decade, both from international space agencies and the private sector. We argue here that these two parallel strategies for the exploration of Mars (i.e., delaying any efforts for the biological reconnaissance of Mars during the next two or three decades and then directly sending human missions to the planet) demand reconsideration because once an astronaut sets foot on Mars, Planetary Protection policies as we conceive them today will no longer be valid as human arrival will inevitably increase the introduction of terrestrial and organic contaminants and that could jeopardize the identification of indigenous martian life. In this study, we advocate for reassessment over the relationships between robotic searches, paying increased attention to proactive astrobiological investigation and sampling of areas more likely to host indigenous life, and fundamentally doing this in advance of manned missions. Key Words: ContaminationEarth MarsPlanetary ProtectionSearch for life (biosignatures). Astrobiology 17, 962-970.

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