We've Found Liquid Water Flowing On Mars, But We're Not Allowed To Investigate It

In 1976, NASA's Viking landers (Viking 2 shown) performed the first and only search for life on Mars to date. NASA.

Of course, we’re all excited about finding liquid salty water on the surface of Mars. But any prospects of sending a rover or even humans to study these mini "rivers" might have to be dampened (sorry), owing to issues of contamination.

The dark streaks known as recurring slope lineae (RSL) all but confirmed liquid water is present on the surface. Such regions, though, are likely to be designated "Special Regions" by the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR). These are places where only a sterile lander would be allowed to visit as per planetary protection rules, keeping them safe from Earth microbes, and potentially ruling out manned missions or a rover like Curiosity.

"The problem [of exploring habitable regions of Mars] is not exploding rockets, shrinking budgets, political gamesmanship or fickle public support," Lee Billings writes for Scientific American. "Rather, the problem is life itself – specifically, the tenacity of Earthly microbes, and the potential fragility of Martian ones."

The long streaks here are thought to have formed by flowing water on Mars. NASA/JPL/University of Arizona.

A recent joint review from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the European Science Foundation suggested that our current efforts to keep these areas free from contamination from Earth might not be enough. Under the rules, to explore such a region a spacecraft must be meticulously sterilized, adding years and millions of dollars to development time. But there’s no guarantee it would keep Mars free of Earth-based life; how confident could we be that a detection of life there was not a stowaway from Earth?

This, of course, poses an even greater problem for manned missions; you can’t exactly sterilize a human. "If astronauts shall only be allowed to visit subpar locales to search for life on Mars, can NASA or any other entity justify the tens to hundreds of billions of dollars required to send them there?" notes Billings.

Others have suggested the rules on contamination might be too stringent, but at the moment, rules are rules. So don’t herald the discovery of water on Mars yet; it might just have reduced the number of interesting locations that we can feasibly visit, without accidentally treading in a pool of microbes.

[H/T: Scientific American]

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