Earth biosecurity, protecting us from Mars or protecting Mars from us?

There’s quite a few plans to bring material back from both Mars and the Moon and this got us thinking about what kind of measures would need to be in place to ensure that both the material is protected from Earth but also our own planet is protected from whatever the material may be introduced to Earth.

In 2016, the movie “Life” came to the big screen where a life form for Mars was raised on a secure section of the International Space Station (ISS). It’s starts off all very nice with a cute little multi celled thing growing peacefully, but it doesn’t take long for the little alien to turn bad, albeit after receiving an electrical shock in order to try and stimulate it. I won’t spoil the movie any further for people who haven’t seen it, but it essentially raises the spectre of introducing an organism to Earth that can cause harm.

So far, we looked at things brought back from the Moon, from ISS and from an asteroid.

We’ve already been to the Moon, brought back many samples and none had alien life forms in it. Here is a picture of the late astronaut John Young collecting samples during Apollo 16.

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Astronaut John Young Collecting Lunar Samples. Astronaut Young, is using the lunar surface rake and a set of tongs… to explore the Moon during Apollo 16. NASA

And my absolute favourite official document (that I do confess I keep a framed copy in my home office) that proves the samples have been introduced to Earth, the phytosanitary declaration that accompanied the samples from Apollo 11 (featured picture).

We also looked at samples we collected from the exterior of the ISS and found that some life forms somehow hitchhiked a ride on the ISS (and possibly the Galaxy with other spacecraft). The Russian researchers who looked at the matter have suggested the voyage could be made via ionosphere lift – in which rising air currents transport matter to the upper reaches of Earth’s atmosphere, according to Sciencealert.com or the ISS exterior simply got contaminated somehow from people, equipment, or crafts launched from Earth to the station.

Then Hayabusa went to asteroid Itokawa and even though the sampling mechanism did not work, tiny (10-100 µm) particles were found in one of the sample containers, apparently introduced during the spacecraft impact into the surface of the asteroid. The particles were very small but not small enough. One of the smallest known free-living bacterium on Earth has a length of 0.37-0.89 μm and an average cell diameter of 0.12-0.20 μm, Pelagibacter ubique is also one of the most common life forms in the oceans (ubiquitous…). I watched the movie Hayabusa, which is well worth watching, on a long haul flight and I felt very touched by the story, it even made me cry. A year later, in 2013 we hosted guests from JAXA, the Japanese Space Agency in New Zealand, for SpaceUp and I had the honour to meet Professor Takashi Kubota who not only featured in the movie but also was instrumental in the research.

Spending my entire life learning about and working in phytosanitary quarantine, then working for the best here in New Zealand – that is the country’s biosecurity system, comes with a huge perspective on what can happen if things go wrong and the knowing that if we manage to do biosecurity right here on Earth, we should be able to hopefully get it right out there in space. I believe that the knowledge we are gaining now about the spread of pests, diseases and invasive organisms will be fundamental in understanding how to establish new colonies elsewhere and how to tackle these issues. Currently we are on a huge learning curve. It’s going to be a very long time until we establish the first colonies in space, but in the meantime there are plenty of things that can go wrong with the activity we currently undertake that could introduce unwanted organisms.

Planetary protection threats are of two kinds:

Forward contamination is the transfer of viable organisms from Earth to another celestial body.

Back contamination is the transfer of extraterrestrial organisms, if such exist, back to the Earth’s biosphere.

We have found nothing in the samples from the Moon. But we discovered that things from Earth can survive in the vacuum of space – such as astronauts, bacteria on the ISS,  and tardigrades, the latter two without a space suit. These occurrences started to raise questions and made scientists reconsider forward contamination, and the planetary protection efforts started focusing on the more important thing: making sure we keep our “germs” to ourselves. A bit like when we have a cold and stay home or else everyone at work would send us home anyway. This discovery is in fact a threat to finding alien life on Mars.

The threat to discovering life on Mars

One of the most important questions, that would change the face of history, Earth and everything we know so far all the way to the fabric of being human is “are there aliens out there?” Even the possibility that we might find that life occurred somewhere else independent of Earth would change the world as we know it. And in order to do that we must make sure we protect the other celestial bodies from us, earthlings contaminating everywhere else with Earth organisms. Now that might be too late according to some who think we already have done it on Mars.

The irony of finding alien life as it stands right now is that we must terminate all life on Earth’s instruments and spacecraft sent out there to make absolutely sure that new life is detected…

Being one of the lucky people who had the job to understand how exactly we do that I can tell you that’s no easy task. And on top of this there is the ethical dilemma, of can we really start terraforming / colonising / changing a planet we know nothing about? What if there is life on Mars and we destroy it by going there?

To be continued…