Sep 18, 2012

The Propagation of Life: Infecting other Worlds

Posted by in categories: biological, ethics, evolution, existential risks, habitats

It is with great bewilderment that I read the precautions that NASA rovers are sterilized to, to ensure that Life does not infect the Martian environment. I understand NASA want to explore Mars for signs of Martian life — but which is more important — to explore whether Life almost evolved on Mars, or to induce the whole process and allow it to occur?

We can get caught up in the concept that preservation of Human Life as the ultimate goal, in how do we colonize other worlds as soon as possible — but perhaps the most honorable pursuit is the propagation of Life itself — we should be introducing bacteria or simple xerophytic plants to Mars, algae to Europa and such worlds, in the anticipation that if a foothold can be taken, evolution could take hold — and we may not live to see it — but we have then passed on the gift of life to another world.

Whimsical Notions or Planning With Foresight? Unless we cause our own demise by inadvertently engineering our downfall, as often discussed here, or are struck by a statistically unfortunate large asteroid impact, Life is here on Earth for the long haul — it has been durable for billions of years, albeit with significant setbacks, and one can expect it will be here for billions more to come. We may well have time on our hands.

If we sow the seeds now, we may have other worlds to move to in a few million years — long before we may need it — such as in five billion years when the Sun has expired into a Red Giant. It is quite reasonable to expect that if we seed Mars with our bacteria now, and other basic forms of life at the bottom of the food chain — in some million years from now Mars may be flourishing with vegetation — evolved to suit the terrain — that a colony there could live off.

It has been considered, that Life on Earth started by a similar process, that a comet or asteroid carrying bacteria inseminated our planet with the seeds of life. So let’s pass on the gift and stop being so prudent. Lets start at the basics, and create lifeboats of Life around our solar system. Perhaps one day our descendants will thank us for nurturing such habitats.


Comments — comments are now closed.

  1. John Hunt says:

    Intelligent life is the only life that has the chance to survive indefinitely. Banking on plants or bacteria to evolve enough intelligence to eventually go interstellar is just not reasonable. These other planets/mone are just not conducive to that. So it is a moot point. Establishing a self-sustaining lunar base is the quickest, easiest, cost-effective way of ensuring Earth life survives. We need to settle down to this conclusion and see what we can do to make it happen soon.

  2. John Hunt says:

    Spellchecking Correction: mone should have been bacteria. Not sure how spellchecking got that far off. :)

  3. Tom Kerwick says:

    John — Banking on plants or bacteria to evolve enough intelligence to then eventually go interstellar is just nothing like what I suggested. Please re-read. I was suggesting:

    “that in some million years from now Mars may be flourishing with vegetation — evolved to suit the terrain — that a colony there could live off”.

  4. GaryChurch says:

    This reminds me of a star trek movie (the only one I liked)- we need to insure there is no life on these worlds before introducing any. The reason being such life would be extremely valuable to science. We can wait to destroy it with invasive species I think. So I respectfully disagree with Tom and agree completely with John that a Moonbase is vital and should be the focus.

  5. Tom Kerwick says:

    I concede there is a need to complete a research for any potential life on these worlds before introducing new life, particularly when the timescales for evolving a vegetation on the terrain would take millions of years. Delaying this by a few decades or centuries makes no great odds. However — I think there must be a cut-off point where we decide — that’s enough research of what was there before — let’s now see what we can do with it.

    As for the topic of the establishment of a Moonbase as a launchpad for interplanetary travel — that is a related but different topic, and one I would agree with John also. I was not suggesting an alternative to this, but an additional longer-term strategy.

  6. John Hunt says:

    My apologies Tom for reading (and assuming) too quickly.

    A few questions here. How long do we wait before determining that there is no bacterial life on Mars? How many aquifers must we test before so determining?

    Alsi, what if we do find bacterial life on Mars? Should we hold off on human colonization there? If so, how long and what criteria before we start human colonization? Would it matter if the bacteria were similar or quite different than Earth’s life?

    Perhaps most importantly, why the presumption that exposing Martian life to Earth bacteria would cause the extinction of Martian life? Has there ever been a recorded instance of the extinction of bacterial life here on Earth due to human impact? Wouldn’t Martian bacteria be more fit for the Martian environment and so it would be the Earth bacteria that would have a hard time of it and have difficulty maintaining a foothold. For example, I understand that the surface of Mars has chemical species which tends Ti sterilize life — an environment unlike Earth’s.

    I am for colonizing the Moon first because I believe it to be the cheapest, fastest, safest place to do so. Time is of the essence here. But I think that, just as soon as we establish a small self-sustaining colony there, then we should quickly take those lessons learned and establish another colony further out. The Moon is pretty safe. But on the off chance that Earth is suddenly hit by a comet large enough to kill all human life, then it would probably be big enough to eject debris far enough to pelt the Moon putting and nascent colony in jeopardy. Much more likely is that self-replicating tech contaminate the lunar colony but this can be mitigated using continuous quarantine measures. Mars has many things to recommend it as a place for a long- term colony. We shouldn’t neglect it.

  7. “Mars has many things to recommend it as a place for a long– term colony.”

    I completely agree that it is vital to put as many degrees of separation as possible between earth and off-world colonies to prevent contagion.

    I completely disagree that Mars has anything to recommend it. A low gravity icy body has all the qualifiers, not Mars. It is the old misconception that Mars is somehow a sweet spot when it is not. It seems “just close enough” and because it is a planet it seems more hospitable. In reality it is not close enough to colonize with chemical propulsion and as a big rock with a deep gravity well it is not a good place to try and land and excavate.
    Ceres is second base IMO