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So we’re arguing about life on Mars … again

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Sep 18, 2017

The epic debate about whether life exists on Mars has no end in sight, and scientists are already arguing over whether that hypothetical life could end up giving us the plague.

NASA has been paranoid about astronauts bringing back extraterrestrial diseases since the first moon landing, paranoid enough to put the Apollo 11 astronauts in a quarantine unit just in case they were carrying some sort of lunar pathogens on their moon boots. Decades later, we’re pretty sure nothing is crawling on the moon—but the possibility of liquid water on Mars may mean otherwise for the Red Planet and anyone who lands there. Should we even be considering a Mars mission until we’re certain it isn’t infested with killer diseases?

This is now becoming an issue at warp speed as NASA and SpaceX plan to blast humans off to Mars (and Elon Musk continues trying to carry out his master plan to colonize it). Protocols would have astronauts quarantined and any extraterrestrial samples held until it was certain there were no alien pathogens crawling around. These protocols are also intended to keep anything that spawned on Earth from contaminating other planets. If you ever paid attention in history class, exotic diseases infiltrated the New World via European settlers and vice versa.

Astrobiologist Dr. John Rummel, who also served as NASA’s planetary protection officer twice, believes this threat should be known to everyone here on Earth before our taxpayer dollars fuel a mission that could end up infecting us.

“I’ve found that most taxpayers don’t want to pay for government programs that might kill them,” he tells NBC's Mach with morbid humor.

But why would we care whether microbes from Earth end up breeding on other planets? Because we could mistake them for aliens. NASA has long been concerned about random spores riding along on Mars rovers, no matter how sterile it may seem from all the mandatory intensive cleaning.

Now for the irony in this whole thing. Last year, rover Curiosity eyed dark streaks on the Martian surface that were suspected to be evidence of flowing water, and that could mean life, at least as we know it. Scientists would have steered the rover over the streaks to examine them more closely if it wasn’t for that one protocol that bars vehicles from getting too close to areas where there could be water potentially teeming with life. So we keep probing Mars to seek out microscopic aliens, but we’re probably not going to find any if NASA forbids it.

Some scientists believe that conditions on sun-blasted Mars are too harsh to sustain any microbial stowaways from Earth, but think of tardigrades, which can survive just about anything and look freaky enough to pass for some extraterrestrial life form. Others insist that we need to examine the Martian surface thoroughly to make sure nothing that returned with a human mission would wipe us out.

Diagnosis? Inconclusive.  

(via NBC Mach)