My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street
If all goes well next month, Curiosity, NASA’s latest mission to
Mars, will land in the Gale crater, a 3.5-billion-year-old,
96-mile-wide depression near the planet’s equator. Out will roll a
car-size rover to search for signs of life, among other things. It
will drill into rocks and sample the contents, using a mass
spectrometer, a gas chromatograph and a laser spectrometer.
In the unlikely event that the project finds evidence of life,
then what? In particular, who is in charge of deciding what we
should do if we encounter living Martian creatures?
Please note that the chances of Curiosity finding actual
microbes look very small. They probably lie deep beneath the
surface, out of range of lethal radiation and beyond the reach of
the rover’s probes, and even then they will be rare, if they exist
at all. A new paper, however, hints that there’s a chance of
finding organic molecules that may be characteristic of life.
Alexander Pavlov of NASA and colleagues have calculated that simple
organic molecules, such as formaldehyde, could survive as little as
2 inches below the surface of Mars, while in young craters more
complex molecules like amino acids could be found at such
But none of this would be actual life.
Even a promising fossil would leave doubts about whether
anything still lives on the red planet. So the day when the
discovery of Martian life is announced is still a very long way
off. But perhaps it’s time to start thinking about what should
happen on that day.
In some ways it is bound to be an anticlimax. Like the
announcement of the Higgs boson last week, however magical the
moment may be in historical terms, it will not affect most people’s
daily lives. We can celebrate, congratulate, revel in the detail
and philosophize on the meaning, but earthly life will continue as
if little had happened.
Pretty soon, though, a political angle will emerge. For one
thing, politicians and journalists from countries other than
America will start to grumble that this discovery must “belong” to
all humankind and not just to NASA. The U.S. government, despite
having forked out all the costs of exploring Mars so far, including
the $2.5 billion cost of Curiosity, will probably agree. But who
will end up making the key decisions?
The United Nations is almost bound to set up an agency to
oversee what experiments are planned, but the U.S. may prefer a
different body. Private consortia may conceivably start to plan how
to go and retrieve a sample, dreaming of the riches to be garnered
from displaying it on Earth. If so, nongovernmental organizations
will quickly begin to worry about the safety of such a scheme and
to champion the rights of Martian microbes to be conserved and
respected in their lairs.
In other words, the discovery of extraterrestrial life would
produce some predictably messy earthly responses.
As far as I can discern there has been very little public
discussion of these issues. The Outer Space Treaty, opened for signature in
1967 by the U.S., U.K. and Soviet Union and ratified by 100
governments, says that no country can claim political sovereignty
over land in outer space. The treaty does not forbid private
ownership of land in space, however, and it would be up to
terrestrial courts to decide if such claims were recognized. Also
NASA has clear policies on how to prevent the contamination of one
planet with the life of another.
If we hear a radio signal from an extraterrestrial intelligence,
there’s also a protocol in place, drawn up by the
International Academy of Astronautics and invoking three
principles: that the decision on whether to reply should be made by
an international body; that it should be sent on behalf of all
humankind; and that its content should reflect a broad
But this is of no relevance to unintelligent Martian microbes.
If extraterrestrial life is a mystery, so is the question of what
we do when we find it.