Mars, the small, cold fourth rock from the Sun, is being given serious consideration by 21st century explorers. Entrepreneur Elon Musk has ambitious plans to send humans to the Red Planet within seven years (and bring them back again); NASA has flown both rovers and landers; and NASA, the European Space Agency, and China have announced plans to each add a rover to the mix in 2020. Even India has orbited Mars, and others such as the UAE are developing their own orbiters. The planned 2020 rovers are part of a strategy that will include bringing samples back from Mars’ surface to Earth.
NASA’s Planetary Protection Office was created to “promote a responsible exploration of the solar system by implementing and developing efforts that protect the science, explorers, environments, and Earth.” This has been the agency’s policy, reflecting the non-contamination provisions of the UN Outer Space Treaty of 1967. Now, some scientists question the need for restrictive contamination guidelines, arguing that new exploration, and in particular a direct search for life in the best places on the Red Planet, is being impeded. Is planetary protection slowing down exploration, and the search for life beyond Earth? Do we have the right to send robotic machinery, or even people, to Mars without giving biologists a chance study it, and look for life? What if that life is hidden underground from view, and requires humans to find it?
In April’s SETI Talk, Robert Zubrin, president and founder of the Mars Society, and John Rummel, former NASA Planetary Officer and currently a Senior Scientist with the SETI Institute, will participate in an animated (and lively!) discussion on these issues, moderated by Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer.
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