Catharine Conley is a "Planetary Protection Officer" at NASA. Not of the planet Earth, but of others, and Mars in particular. Her job? Protecting the galaxy from humans.
On can read a portrait dedicated to this woman guardian of the purity of the planets in the New York Times. We learn that its mission is to ensure that humans do not carry with their big hooves living organisms capable of radically disrupting planetary ecosystems. Catharine Conley explains to the New York daily: "If we're going to look for life on Mars, it would still suck to bring life from Earth... ".
Its task is not easy because since the beginning of the conquest of space, thousands, millions and sometimes more bacteria have had to cross the solar system on a spacecraft.
Certainly, scientists who send probes into space are careful; the materials are treated carefully. But complete sterilization is unthinkable at present because it is far too expensive: we are talking about hundreds of millions of dollars more. So we can easily imagine that the Curiosity or Observer probes that we sent to Mars must have carried microbes or other terrestrial organisms. Some must have been fried during the trip, especially by ultraviolet rays, but we know that life is sometimes... hard. ...some of them had to resist. Catharine Conley even thinks that some organisms such as lichens, if they were transported on the great journey, must have found Mars, with its stony soils and blazing sun, a particularly delightful place to stay.
In order to avoid untimely colonisation, which would be catastrophic for science, the only way today is to avoid sensitive areas, i.e. areas where life can easily develop. This is the reason why Martian robots are forbidden to visit certain regions. But perhaps the damage has already been done. Indeed, the Clean Lady of Space reminds us that Earthlings began to invade Mars in 1971 with the Soviet Mars 2 probe that crashed on the Red Planet. At that time, sterilization concerns were close to zero and we can therefore think that a few million terrestrial bacteria found their way onto Martian soil as early as that time. It is safe to say that life exists on Mars. It is a certainty. But life surely originated on Earth.
This impact, however, must be very limited, which allows Dr. Conley to say: "So far, Mars is pretty clean." Whew!
For how long? Theoretically, the great space powers on Earth are not allowed to touch Martian soil. Almost 50 years ago, in 1967, they signed the Space Treaty. According to Vincent Manilève of SlateThe text expressly prohibits sending a mission, human or otherwise, near a water source to avoid contaminating it with life from Earth. The same treaty, in Article IX, stipulates: "... the following shall be prohibitedThe States Parties to the Treaty shall conduct the study and exploration of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, in such a manner as to avoid the detrimental effects of their contamination and harmful changes in the Earth's environment resulting from the introduction of extraterrestrial substances and, if necessary, shall take appropriate measures to this end..»
Recent discoveries of liquid water on Mars now pose the problem in increased light. And it is very likely that as we continue to explore Mars, we will find ourselves in hot and humid regions that are capable of supporting life and are therefore strictly forbidden to enter.
Will we, earthlings, be able to abide by the rules we have set for ourselves?