The title seems like a no-brainer to most of you, or so I’d assume. We’ve already got more than our fair share of plagues currently wreaking havoc around the Earth, with potentially some other golden oldies waiting for their turn to get the band back together. We certainly don’t need any infectious contagions from the Moon, Mars, the upper atmosphere of Venus or anywhere else dropping in on us. But as we Earthlings prepare a new fleet of missions heading to all of those locations and more, with some scheduled to bring samples back home for study, how do we prevent some sort of Martian COVID-666 from breaking loose here?
To solve this riddle, NASA is sending in the United States Office of Planetary Protection (OPP, and yes, that’s a real thing) to keep everyone safe. They’re being tasked with the chore of keeping any alien microbes, spores or other tiny lifeforms that might be looking to hitch a ride back to Florida from surviving the trip or getting loose if they manage to do so. But in a curious move, they’re outsourcing this seemingly vital job to somebody else. That would be SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Why? Let’s did out. (NY Post)
Aliens take note: Only humans can trash this planet.
NASA is taking measures to prevent extraterrestrial-borne contaminants from invading Earth.
Last week, the agency’s Office of Planetary Protection (OPP) said they’d hired the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute to support all current and future missions per OPP’s standards. Researchers at SETI will oversee nearly all aspects of hygiene on future flight projects, and are charged with carrying out new guidelines for “biological cleanliness.”
Founded in 1984 by NASA officials, the SETI Institute is a nonprofit research organization dedicated to answering the question, “Are we alone in the universe?”
At first glance, this doesn’t exactly look like a very good fit, does it? I mean, SETI is an obvious starting point if you’re looking for information about advanced, intelligent extraterrestrial aliens. That’s pretty much been their raison d’etre since the beginning. And they’ve done plenty of work on the subject over the years. Back in the early 2000s I took part for several years in the “SETI at Home” project where users installed some SETI software on their internet-connected computers and allowed the group to use your computer’s “idle” time to process their data, looking for patterns in signals they detected from space.
But what do they really know about decontaminating space hardware and wiping out microbes before they morph into something out of a Sigourney Weaver movie and start eating all of the tourists at Disney World? It seems to me like this would be more of a job for the CDC. (Wait… check that. After looking at the novel coronavirus situation, maybe that’s not a great plan either.)
All jokes aside, I assume that SETI must have some people who have been working on such things for a while now, otherwise NASA wouldn’t have given them the nod. The problem is, we have almost no real-world (or really off of this world) experience to draw on. Aside from the moon dust that the Apollo missions brought back and a couple of probes that intercepted comets or asteroids, we haven’t really been bringing much stuff back to our planet that’s gone much further than low Earth orbit.
Hopefully, NASA is devoting at least an equal amount of attention to the reverse problem. Based on the opinions of some fairly smart people I follow, I’m pretty confident that we’re eventually going to find at least some residual, microbial life on Mars. Anywhere that there’s water lying under more than a few feet of soil and rock to protect it from the ambient radiation, I’ll be shocked if there aren’t some extremophiles. But with all of these missions we have scheduled, we’re probably far more likely to contaminate all of the places we’re visiting with Earth germs than vice versa. And if they’re taking root on Mars, assuming we eventually find life there, how will we know if it’s really “Martians” and not just our own germs settling in on a new home?