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Computer-generated image of Gale Crater on Mars at dawn based on data from the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Star Stuff: Why Mars needs protecting from us

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Summer Ash
Nov 16, 2017

As you read this, there are no less than 13 landers on the surface of Mars in various states of being, ranging from active to dormant to smashed. There are another six landers in prep across the globe and countless more taking shape in proposals and in the minds of the next generation of scientists and engineers. And I haven’t even gotten to the crewed missions Elon Musk and Mars One are striving to make happen. In the midst of all this activity, Lucianne Walkowicz is exploring the bigger picture of how we treat of Mars, both scientifically and ethically.

Walkowicz is the Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology in the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress. A joint effort between NASA’s Astrobiology Institute and the Kluge Center, the position is akin to a “researcher in residence” where the residence is the oldest federal cultural institution in the U.S. and the largest library in the world. She is the fifth person to hold the chair and the first woman. Her year in Washington D.C. is a sabbatical of sorts from her full time position as an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, where her research focuses on magnetic activity in stars and how that can affect the habitability of exoplanets.

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Lucianne Walkowicz. Credit: TED.

The Astrobiology Chair was created to encourage researchers to explore the interface between science and society, more specifically: “the range and complexity of societal issues related to how life begins and evolves, and to examine the philosophical, religious, ethical, legal, cultural and other concerns arising from scientific research on the origin, evolution and nature of life.” For the next year, Walkowicz will be taking full advantage of the library’s collection to pursue the project she designed entitled “Fear of a Green Planet: Inclusive Systems of Thought for Human Exploration of Mars.” Translation: what are the ethical implications of Mars exploration? Walkowicz is specifically looking at three aspects of our obsession with the Red Planet: exploration as colonialism, space law, and the search for life.

Planetary protection has a long history. Ever since we've been sending things to space, we've had been thinking about the implications for the celestial bodies we plan to visit. There is literally a job at NASA for a planetary protection officer and the international body Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) has dedicated groups to address societal and environmental issues of planetary exploration. Walkowicz is focusing on Mars because it's the most reachable planet, not just for robotic missions but for human exploration as well. “It's a major priority of NASA to actually send human beings there, which I think poses some unique challenges that just sending robotic spacecraft doesn't.”

One of these challenges is the narratives we use when we talk about Mars exploration. The forces driving us to Mars at the moment are largely coming out of Silicon Valley and to some extent our own government, but these narratives are based in colonialism. “There's a lot of recycling ideas about the American frontier or going further back, Columbus coming to America and I think a lot of those ways we talk about exploring space really make visions of the future limiting to people who aren't included in those narratives,” Walkowicz explained. “And those keep getting repeated because the folks who repeat them don't necessarily see them as negative, and they don't realize necessarily that they're even being exclusionary.”

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Daneille Lee.

The colonial aspects of space exploration have been noted by many scientists, not just astronomers, especially in the wake of major announcements or proclamations by individuals seen as leader in the field. Danielle Lee, a biologist at Oklahoma State University, wrote about Stephen Hawking’s statement in 2015 that the future of the human race lay in space: “Considering how many parallels are being drawn to the expansion of American settlers into a ‘untamed’ West, I worry that Mars exploration and colonization will be less about saving all of humanity and more about staking claims to profitable natural resources and establishing essential industries...Without inclusive dialogue and deliberate consideration of the ramifications of venture capitalism on space exploration, we could see history repeating itself in the new new frontier.”

There is also the question of resource management. Both NASA and private companies have an interest in space exploration for the purpose of extracting resources such as water, helium, and precious metals. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 specifically calls for “non-appropriation of celestial bodies” meaning no one can stake claim to an asteroid, moon, planet, etc. However, in 2015, the U.S. government passed the Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship (SPACE) Act which explicitly allows and encourages staking claim to resources on celestial bodies. Walkowicz is especially interested in how this comes into play where water is concerned because where there is water, there could be life. The SPACE Act says you can own water, but it doesn’t say you can own things like biota. “There's not really a whole lot of technical detail about how you will be sure that you don't have biology. Maybe you'll recognize it, maybe you won't.” She adds, “It doesn't say anything about whether it's okay to sterilize water. We sterilize spacecraft to go explore places like Mars, but arguably if you were to discover native Martian bacteria you could certainly make an argument that that would be special enough that it would not be okay to irradiate it. That's also assuming that you know how to sterilize something in the presence of biology you know nothing about.”

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There is a non-zero chance that extra hardy microbes from Earth may have already hitched a ride to Mars with our spacecraft, but given what we’ve learned to date, none of them have landed in the “special regions” where we think water and life may have most recently been. Each mission to the Red Planet is evaluated and given a planetary protection rating that reflects its level of decontamination. Any mission to one of the special regions would require the highlest level of sterilization possible, but even then nothing is guaranteed. We have a hard enough time dealing with invasive species here on Earth that are full fledged planets or animals, imagine how much havoc microbial ones could wreak on Mars. One of our worst fears is discovering life on another planet that we brought with us. Walkowicz possists our treatment of Mars “serves as a kind of mirror that tells us how we see ourselves on Earth, how we see our own futures here, and how we also see ourselves treating the land around us.”

If you’re lucky enough to live in D.C., keep an eye on the calendar for the  Library of Congress because part of the Astrobiology Chair involves organizing public events. Walkowicz plans to put on a conference about Mars ethics as well as a few public talks. Part of her proposal also includes working with local teens from underserved communities and hoping to engage them in conversations around Mars and how we should see ourselves in space. “What I really want to do is really take the narrative out of being something that is totally driven by the monoculture of science as it is, and broaden it to people whose voices haven't really been traditionally included, so that we can see science as it might be.”

You can follow Walkowicz on Twitter and Facebook and Danielle Lee on Twitter. Walkowicz is also a TED fellow, you can watch her videos and read her blogs here.

From now until next October, I'll be picturing Walkowicz in her office at the Library of Congress starting every day like this. 

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Star Stuff is a weekly column by rocket scientist & astrophysicist Summer Ash highlighting some amazing things happening every day on and off the planet, especially great science done by and/or for women. She harnesses her science communication powers to smash the patriarchy and advocate for equality and inclusion across all time and space. Throwdowns with pseudoscience may occur.