With the discovery of flowing water on the surface of Mars, it’s fair to say it’s been quite a week for Science and astronomers all over the world –particularly so for armchair researcher Efrain Palermo with this vindication of his 14-year-old findings, as I reported last Tuesday.
“Great!” all those space enthusiasts may be thinking; “now NASA will know where *exactly* to send future drone missions to look for signs of life on Mars.”
Well, here’s the thing: Legally they can’t.
NASA, as a government agency, is bound to obey the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which is part of the international agreements intended to govern the conduct of member nations of the United States with regards to activities and/or exploitation of outer space, the Moon and other celestial bodies.
The Outer Space Treaty was opened for signature in the United States, the United Kingdom and the former Soviet Union on January of 1967 –while the Space Race was in full swing, and there was a serious concern that the Cold War could extend beyond the surface of our planet– and entered into force on October of 1967. As of 2013, 103 countries are parties of it.
The treaty (which you can download here) binds all signature parties to conduct space exploration solely for peaceful scientific purposes; it forbids the national appropriation of the Moon or other planets (asteroids included) or the placing of either weapons or military bases in any of them, nor on orbit around the Earth.
Article IX states:
[…]State Parties to the Treaty shall pursue studies of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, and conduct exploration of them so as to avoid their harmful contamination [emphasis mine] and also adverse changes in the environment of the Earth resulting from the introduction of extraterrestrial matter and, where necessary, shall adopt appropriate measures for this purpose.
Ever wondered why Curiosity and the rest of its rover siblings always seemed to be sent to the most BORING parts of Mars, where there was little chance they could actually find a living Martian microbe? Well, now you know why.
As Bec Crew explains on his article for Science Alert, NASA’s current sterelization methods for the equipment they send out to outer space or other planets are not 100% reliable, hence there’s still a tiny risk of contaminating the surface of these other worlds with alien life –i.e. Earthling microbes.
Not that NASA couldn’t sterilise the crap out of its rovers if it wanted to. As UNSW astrobiologist Malcolm Walter told The Sydney Morning Herald, they could blast Curiosity with crazy amounts of heat and radiation that would wipe out anything and everything that managed to survive the journey from Earth without a shadow of a doubt, but then they’d be wiping out the rover’s internal electronics in the process. Not exactly practical.
“In order to be completely sterile, they’d have to use really powerful ionising radiation or heat, both of which would damage the electronics,” says Walter. “So they go as far as they dare.”
The treaty sure throws a bucket of cold, briny water not only to our hopes of finally finding extraterrestrial life within our lifetime, but also on the possibility of fulfilling a manned mission to Mars. Deposits of H2O on the world you want to visit is a great asset, because it means you can use the water not only for consumption, but also to extract breathable oxygen and event convert it into rocket fuel, which you could use for the trip back home.
Oh, and that awesome trip to Europa concocted by real-life Tony Stark? Fuhgeddaboutit! Unless he becomes a citizen of Guatemala, or other non-party state of the Outer Space Treaty –although with his dough he could probably buy one of those in the future…
Of course, back in 1967 there were a lot of things we didn’t know about the resilience of extremophiles, which are now been found to resist the harshest environments imaginable, like the core of nuclear reactors or even on the windows of the space station (apparently); which is why Akshat Rathi of Quartz concludes there’s no guarantee NASA’s or other space agency’s missions hadn’t already contaminated Mars forever —Beagle 2 anyone?
Should we worry that much, though? We know Earth and Mars have been exchanging meteorites for millions of years, so sending up more microbes hitching a ride on our equipment or astronatus could be seen as a continuation of a natural panspermic process.
We could always revise the treaty, making it more lenient with regards to the ‘harmful contamination’ of the Moon and othe celestial bodies, or maybe even abolish it entirely due to its impracticality –after all, seems to me the Air Force has been bending the rules somewhat with that secretive X-37B space plane which can orbit the Earth for months doing god-knows-what!
But of course, if the treaty goes, so too the assurance that we won’t have nuclear warheads zipping over our heads like an orbital Damocles sword…
But hey, if everything fails to prevent the safe and unpolluting exploration of outer space, just remember: There’s always remote viewing.