Courtesy of NASA

NASA compiled this image of Mars using hundreds of photos from the Viking landers. New research from Alberto Fairén shows that current exploration techniques could disrupt life on Mars.

November 28, 2018

New Research Shows Current Exploration Techniques Could Eradicate Life on Mars

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New research suggests that too much water could eradicate life on Mars before we even know it exists.

Alberto Fairén, a visiting scientist in Cornell’s Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Science, co-authored a paper recently published in Nature which found that microbial species that are adapted to arid or “extreme desiccating” conditions can go through “osmotic shock” if exposed to large, unexpected quantities of water. According to The New York Times, the microbes drown due to being unable to handle the influx of water into their external membrane.

This could pose a unique threat to potential life on Mars and future human exploration on the red planet.

Fairén and colleagues discovered the phenomenon of osmotic shock while studying the effect of rainfall on desert ecosystems in the Atacama Desert in Chile.

The Atacama Desert is considered one of the driest places in the world, receiving just 0.04 inches of rainfall annually and no significant rainfall has fallen in the past 500 years.

“[The Atacama desert] is the driest desert on Earth, with a hyperarid core where no rains have been recorded in centuries. As a consequence of the extreme dryness … sporadic rains concentrated [large deposits of] nitrates at valley bottoms and former lakes,” Fairén told The Sun in an email. “This unique distribution of the Atacama nitrates is identical to the nitrate deposits recently discovered on Mars by the rover Curiosity.”

According to Fairen, past human attempts at looking for life on Mars could have already damaged local ecosystems. The 1976 Viking landers used “aqueous solutions” to test for life on the surface of Mars. Fairén noted that “[it] would have caused first their osmotic burst, and then the subsequent destruction of the organic molecules.”

Fairen said that Cornell has been integral in allowing him to bring attention to his work and spread the word about the potential hazards of Mars exploration.

“Cornell has always supported my research and, most importantly, contributed to the dissemination of my results. It is tempting to wonder whether my research on human exploration of Mars, which has been always challenging NASA and other agencies’ status quo in the subject, would have reached large audiences without the Cornell logo behind me.”

With recent steps forward in the possibility of a manned mission to Mars, Fairen expressed that now more than ever that we need to consider the ecological effect we could have on potential microbial life on Mars.

“This problem has evolved rapidly during the last decade, and it seems that national agencies are a bit slow to keep abreast of the ambition and intentions of private companies, which hope to send human missions to Mars in the 2030’s or even earlier,” he said. “We urgently need to know if there are extant microbial ecosystems at or near the surface of Mars. This is a one-time only chance for humanity, and thus of paramount importance.”