Before we land on Mars

A few days ago we have started one long email discussion with my colleagues and friends from various institutions – some private space companies, NASA, etc.

A computer-generated image from Marshall’s Meteoroid Environments Office shows the view from Acidalia Planitia. Source: NASA.

Our discussion initially started with the environment on Mars and the possible toxicity of the chemicals that are part of the regolith, Martian soil (or in some places lets’ call it simple as sand).

I will not copy the ideas of our email discussion here. Also, I will not be writing here what we are talking about now (because our discussion still continues). I would like to share with you something else. Something that is very related to the human mission to Mars and something that we should really start to think of. Until it is not too late.

When talking about landing on Mars, we use to mention the future time frame – sometimes in the 30s of the 21st Century or maybe later. Yes, we should be able to make a mission to Mars now, because we have (or used to have) almost everything needed for the mission, but we are missing something very important – the strong enthusiasm that will be well presented and covered by the world leaders. And of course, then a strong financial budget will be easily available (we need to stop spending money on stupid things like wars). And at least the majority of mankind should be united in such a big endeavor. Because the mission to Mars will be not just a mission to another continent. It will be a mission to another planet.

And here I am coming to the main idea of this article. We are going to visit (or maybe colonize) another planet. Another world, which has never been touched by humans, except by our robots. Maybe you already suspect what I want to say in the next lines of this text.

Our robotic missions are trying to find life, traces of life from the past of Mars, or even small amounts of organics that can form the simplest forms of life which we can imagine.

Mars as a planet has a very hostile environment for the life forms as we know them from Earth. It means, that if any simple life form exists on Mars, we must be looking for it under the ground, where it would be protected against the radiation on the surface (The martian surface has no natural protection against radiation from space, or against the ultra-violet radiation of the Sun). And of course, when you know the major chemical compounds of the soil on Mars – the soil contains perchlorates, which are toxic to life. I will not be describing the complex chemistry of Martian soil here, because I would like to point the idea to something else. To life. To life on Mars. Do not laugh, I am really talking about the extra-terrestrial life that may exist on Mars (or on some other planet or moon in Solar System).

The next robotic missions that would be looking for life (or for traces of life from the past) on Mars, will target their work under the ground – they will dig into the soil. For example, the next European mission – rover ExoMars will drill 2 meters deep into the soil and will examine the samples obtained this way.

We suppose that the possible microbial life on Mars may be protected against the harsh environment, especially by the planet itself. We do not need to be looking for something special – some kind of “hardware protection” on Mars is everywhere on its surface. The protection is the soil. If microbial life exists, there may be a hypothetically strong possibility that it may be protected by some layers of soil, so it may be hidden inside the soil. Lets’ say, at least 1.5 m or 2 m deep.

And now summarize all this information and combine it with our hypothesis about the existence of microbial life. These life forms can exist in extreme conditions and are very sensitive. This simply means that these life forms can be simply destructed by anything that is far stronger than them.

There is one planet in Solar System where we know that life exists. The planet is called the Earth. And do you know what is the most dangerous factor for any life form existing on this planet? Yes, there are more dangers, but the only one is very special. Humans.

Charles Conrad Jr., Apollo 12 Commander, examines the unmanned Surveyor III spacecraft during the second extravehicular activity (EVA-2). Source: NASA.

Human activity or just humans can damage or destroy almost anything. Our exploration activities may not be an exception. I can remind you of a short story from the history of the exploration of the Moon by Surveyor 3 probe. This probe landed on Moon on April 20, 1967 (Mare Cognitum), and it remained there for almost 3 years. After this long time, the astronauts of mission Apollo 12 landed in the precisely chosen location – selected the same location as is the location of Surveyor 3 on the Moon. Astronauts dismantled the onboard camera from Surveyor 3, packed it into a bag, and returned it back home – to Earth.

After the laboratory examination on Earth, there was found the bacteria Streptococcus Mitis survived nearly three years on the surface of the Moon. Of course, there was a following debate that scientists did not use proper sterilization, or protection, that it might cause a re-contamination after the camera returned back to Earth. But in 2011 it was studied again and it really looks like this bacterial life survived almost three years on Moon. And you know, Moon does not have even any small planetary protection against the radiation from space, which Mars has (but very weak).

What did I want to say with this? Yes, said, the bacteria from Earth may survive something that we cannot even imagine, yet. And what will happen if we will bring it to Mars?

Let’s go back to the weak microbial life that hypothetically exists in extreme conditions on Mars. Protected, still alive. Why it hasn’t evolved to something stronger these days? The answer is simple – conditions on Mars did not allow it.

And now – we will land with humans in the desired area of exploration. We know that we can try to make a robotic probe very clean of microbes from Earth – we can sterilize it. But we cannot do the same with humans, because we are living forms. Astronauts flying to Mars will spend a couple of months in a spacecraft en route to Mars and during these months they may become ill, their bodies will be home to many new and fresh bacteria. And even hidden illnesses can develop in their bodies.

Astronauts will do their best to put on their spacesuits, trying not to contaminate them. We will be happy if we will deliver astronauts with the necessary equipment to Mars. We are not able to deliver any special clean room with them, any special equipment for making them 100 % clean from microbes or bacteria.

And then it will come. Another huge leap for mankind. The first step in Martian soil. Everybody on Earth will stop breathing for a minute and then everybody will celebrate. But! If there is microbial life on Mars in a form as I have described above, will this microbial life “celebrate” with us, too? Or the imaginary clock will begin a sad countdown – until it will extinct just because of our landing and exploration? Remember – Mars is a planet that existed its own “life” without needing us. It is not just a Moon without an atmosphere. Mars has its own atmosphere, conditions, environment, and world. Even when it is not suitable for us.

And now it comes. Astronauts will find out the answer to our BIG question: “Is (or was) there any life on Mars?”

The answer may be: “Yes, but it has just started to die … just because us … we did it.”

I did not want to say that we should never go to Mars. No. We must go there. We must move further, we must study, we must explore. But with a strong sense and empathy for the world out there on Mars.

And what next? My research covers also this part of exploration mission analytics and planning. Stay tuned and follow my research.

If you have any questions, just write them below in the comments, and I will try to answer – if I will know, of course. I promise to do my best.

Author: Dr. Jozef Kozár (Mars Systems Laboratory)

How to cite this text:

The most of the text above was published as an article in magazine Science & Mars Journal. So if you would like to cite it, then please use this citation in your resources list:

Kozar, J., Before We Land on Mars. Science & Mars Journal – International Journal of Mars Research. Issue 7, Volume 4. Published 13 July 2017. ISSN: 2453-8760.

Bibliography and used resources:

Surveyor 3 Streptococcus Mitis (APSTREPMIT), NASA, Apollo program. Retrieved: July 13, 2017.

Mitchell, F. J. & Ellis, W. L.. Surveyor III: Bacterium isolated from a lunar-retrieved TV camera. Proceedings of the Lunar Science Conference, vol. 2, p.2721
Bibliographic Code: 1971LPSC….2.2721M. Available online:….2.2721M. Retrieved: July 13, 2017

Featured image in title of the article: Journey to Mars – A computer-generated image from Marshall’s Meteoroid Environments Office shows the view from Acidia Planitia. NASA. Original article with the image: Martian skywatchers provide insight on red planet’s atmosphere, protect orbiting hardware. Retrieved on 13 July 2017.

Useful links for further reading and study:

  • Surveyor 3 camera brought back from the Moon by Apollo 12, on display at the National Air and Space Museum (link)
  • LRO Briefing: Latest Images of Apollo Landing Sites (link)

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Dr. Jozef Kozár

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