Dr. Catharine A. Conley works for NASA as a planetary protection officer. In others words, her job is to keep planets, particularly Mars, clean. With all the human activity that is starting to take place on Mars, it’s no surprise that someone is given the duty of keeping the red planet neat and free of contamination.
Dr. Conley said, “If we’re going to look for life on Mars, it would be really kind of lame to bring Earth life and find that instead.”
Her position gained importance, when water was discovered on Mars, raising speculation that there might be life on our planetary neighbor.
Whenever a spacecraft travels to a distant planet, the presence of bacteria is a major concern. It’s inevitable that microbes will come along for the ride. Even in the harsh Martian environment, it will be a long time before Earth-transferred microbes will die off.
In the continuing search for life, the Opportunity and Curiosity Rovers of NASA are not allowed to visit areas called “special regions”. These areas are places on Mars where bacteria from Earth would likely make their new home. They usually include crevices alongside craters, canyons and mountains. Unfortunately, these areas are also the most likely areas where native Martian life would be located.
Meanwhile, in the search for life, the Curiosity Rover is slowly making its way up a mountain in Gale Crater. This area was selected because it was unlikely to contain special regions. The area is showing signs that it might contain salt water.
However, explorers would need to get approval from Dr. Conley before they could proceed further. Even as the rover stays on the planet, microbes remain present on its surface.
Protections such as these have been in place since 1967 with the signing of The Outer Space Treaty. The treaty states that nations should exercise caution when exploring other planets to avoid harmful contamination. The Committee on Space Research, which is part of the International Council of Science, develops these policies.
Dr. Conley is in charge of enforcing them.
Some question these efforts taken by NASA and other space administrations. They wonder why humans should go to such great lengths to avoid contamination when humans plan on eventually settling on the planet.
However, space organizations say that protecting the environment of these new frontiers is the greatest priority right now. They absolutely do not want to bring harm to any life on new planets, even if that life is microscopic.
As for Dr. Conley, she believes that most of Mars is contaminant free, outside of a few designated areas.
“So far, Mars is still pretty clean,” she said.