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The possibility and ethics of contaminating Mars. (Split from SpaceX.)


SunlitZelkova
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On 12/25/2021 at 2:44 PM, kerbiloid said:

I would just send a shipload of frozen chicken eggs and spread it across the area suspected of the unauthorized biological activity.

If the life exists there, when the eggs unfreeze they will become a perfect substrate widely used on the Earth for the pathogen herding.

We know the chicken DNA. We should look for non-chicken genetic material by studying the colored spots grown on the rotten eggs.

For better accuracy, the egg-producing hens should be fed with slightly radioactive food, to easily take the substrate distribution picture, and to trace the unexpected paths of the substrate motion.

If there is an unauthorized biological agent populating the planet, it would be definitely more visible where it has food rather than where it not has food.

Edited Saturday at 02:49 PM by kerbiloid

Good idea but just a little bit unrealistic. Like why would you waste that many eggs and how many would you need to cover the area? And how would you spread them. How are you going to make sure they don't crack on landing.

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1 hour ago, Astro_Stars said:

Like why would you waste that many eggs and how many would you need to cover the area?

No need to cover it literally. Just provide the suspected area with numerous spots of edible material.
If something unlicensed is living here, it will immediately start growing on anything more edible than perchlorated stones.

The eggs are just the standard lab substrate to herd the pet microbes before treacherously kill them with fire.

1 hour ago, Astro_Stars said:

And how would you spread them.

By unboxing the shell in midair. We don't want to leave them live, we want to smash them across.

(They are "empty" eggs, so no chicken gets hurted in process).

1 hour ago, Astro_Stars said:

How are you going to make sure they don't crack on landing.

???
We want them crack and splash across.

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11 hours ago, kerbiloid said:

No need to cover it literally. Just provide the suspected area with numerous spots of edible material.
If something unlicensed is living here, it will immediately start growing on anything more edible than perchlorated stones.

The eggs are just the standard lab substrate to herd the pet microbes before treacherously kill them with fire.

The problem is this won't work on Mars.  Between the intensity of solar radiation and the perchlorates they produce on the surface, Martian life is like pre-oxygen and thus pre-ozone Earth life, it can't live on the surface.  Earth life had to live deep enough in the seas or fresh water to get enough radiation protection.  Any Martian life will have to be subsurface for similar reasons.  The design of the Viking life tests took this in mind.  They just need to be updated and more of them used to exclude the effect of the active molecules on the very surface.

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Hm ... cover a large area with soon to be freeze-dried egg powder ... let it mix with perchlorate dust ... then land a rocket. I see you thought about the "killing with fire" part already.

 

In all seriousness though, I highly doubt we would be able to detect life on Mars by cultivation at all. And that's assuming we're employing a more sophisticated method than egging it.

I'm not sure about the exact numbers, but I think it has been estimated that for each Earth microbe we can cultivate there are ten which we can't. On the one hand, there's the problem of figuring out the exact growth condition, which is tricky but solvable. On the other hand, there is the more serious problem of generation time. It's quite easy to cultivate an E. coli that replicates every half an hour or so, but what do you do if you're dealing with a hardy little critter that's adapted to a rather Spartan lifestyle and replicates once a year?  Assuming optimum conditions of course, which typically don't involve a lot of egg.

Considering the temperatures and the relative sparseness of nutrients, anything living close to the Martian surface would likely have a metabolism of the slow and steady kind, which would make any cultivation attempts very, very boring indeed.

 

PS I don't see radiation and perchlorates as huge problems. Microorganisms can be extremely radiation-hardy and perchlorate is actually a bonus, since it keeps water liquid at low temperatures and can be metabolized quite easily.

Edited by Piscator
PS
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54 minutes ago, Piscator said:

It's quite easy to cultivate an E. coli that replicates every half an hour or so, but what do you do if you're dealing with a hardy little critter that's adapted to a rather Spartan lifestyle and replicates once a year?  Assuming optimum conditions of course, which typically don't involve a lot of egg.

Most bacteria with enough food will reproduce every 20 minutes or so.  One of the extremes in the other direction is Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which only divides once or twice per day.  It's why antibiotics have to be taken for half a year or more to treat Tuberculosis, as most antibiotics tend to attack during cell division when the organism is more vulnerable.

 

54 minutes ago, Piscator said:

Microorganisms can be extremely radiation-hardy and perchlorate is actually a bonus, since it keeps water liquid at low temperatures and can be metabolized quite easily.

Deinococcus radiodurans is one of a few extremely radioresistant organisms.  The best explanation for its strong DNA repair structures is they evolved to withstand the damage from desiccation.  To have Martian life evolved such radiation protection would, I think, require such a crowded environment of life that this would allow it to have an ability to occupy the high radiation niche.  It's also a problem, as it would otherwise limit the organism to put more energy into such a specific structure.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radioresistance

I still think it's more likely that any Martian life is similar to bacteria and primarily survives under the surface, as that gives more possibilities.

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On 12/25/2021 at 2:36 PM, tater said:

Yeah, we have two camps, one that wants to terraform Mars, another concerned about not allowing a handful of bacteria to survive

I, for one, am an avowed proponent of stripmining Mars.

It is the goldilocks zone factory planet.

  1. It has a thin atmo for easy ascent, but enough for aerobraking.
  2. It has low gravity for easy escape, but enough for conventional ore separation and smelting processes.
  3. It's in a relatively low energy cost orbital location, not too far in, not too far out.

Muh microbes, muh terraforming...

No, wh40k is my instruction manual, and anyone who complains is getting turned into a servitor.

 

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We must utilize Mars by covering it with algae greenhouses and polymers&fuel fabrics and build orbital settlements for ~100 mln of best human people to evacuate them there if the Earth gets devastated by some cataclysm, to repopulate the Earth when the dust has fallen, or to continue the civilisation if the Earth is completely destroyed.

The Martian surface is required as a heat sink and resource source for theese greenhouses and fabrics. The orbital settlement are the habitats with artificial  1g gravity.

The Moon (simultaneously with predatory mining of the hypothetical platinoids & lantanoids should be equipped with all-human vaults for quick evacuation of as many billions as possible (actually, 1..2 in the best case), in case if the panterrestrial cataclysm allows to return in a decade.

The Earth should be equipped with such vaults just because the asteroid hits one side, not both, and as well a gamma burst immediately irradiates one hemisphere of two.
So, it would give a chance for a quarter or so of humanity to survive if the hit is not absolutely devastating.

For quick evacuation into the giant vaults, they should be cores of the megalopolises.

For quick evacuation from the Earth giant ships should be built and stand there ready to recieve countless sedated bodies to deliver them to the Moon.

The traces of hypothetical Martian life would be found in process if they exist at all.

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2 minutes ago, Nothalogh said:

Ship is inherently vault.

If made of 2 m thick armored concrete - yes, it's even an ark.

3 minutes ago, Nothalogh said:

Build city on top of ship.

Evacuate to ship.

Launch city/ship.

A ship to deliver people to the Moon is much smaller than a city.

Because a ship requires ~ 1 m3 per sleeping body, while the city - from 100 to 1000 m3 and more.

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1 hour ago, kerbiloid said:

t's even an ark

A Mars 'colony' (or other extra-terrestrial outpost) will only ever be an Ark - and never, truly a colony. 

Humanity's first true colony won't exist until we find an earth-analog to exploit (and the colonists enjoy the option of wandering off into the wilds and saying F* those guys back 'home'. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Fuggitabout 

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On 12/25/2021 at 10:57 AM, tater said:

Why this number? Because that is exactly what the estimates of Viking contamination were?

I want them to "show their work" honestly.

"Doing something" just to show you've tried to do something, even if it in fact does nothing... I feel like we all have lengthy personal experience with that right now.

What if the number of spores sufficient to contaminate Mars—like they could grow and reproduce—turns out to be 1-3 per landing event, say for argument 2/3 would never germinate (is that the right word for spores?). The literally 3 and you've likely seeded Mars. Numbers are pulled out of my posterior, but that is the ACTUAL requirement to avoid contamination in the sense i mean it. Spores that will stay spores until they are no longer viable? Yeah, I don't care, even a little—they can ID them. Spores that can actually result in bacteria living on Mars? That's actual contamination, and the allowable number needs to be small enough that it is not possible.

The COSPAR Panel on Planetary Protection has minutes of the open sessions of their meetings, but they are run downs of their activities, not word by word transcripts.

What you are asking for, at this moment in time (prior to any sense of urgency among planetary protection advocates that a potential extreme contamination event is imminent, that would result in publication of further information in order to argue against that event), is like me asking SpaceX to reveal design documents, transcripts of meetings, test data, etc. to "verify Starship's safety" for skeptical members of the public, and then saying "Starship is a joke" because SpaceX didn't "show their work".

You have mentioned various "what ifs", and yes, it is possible there is a high threshold for contamination of Mars. But we just don't know. You could say "what if it is too late" to argue against planetary protection, but I could say "what if it is not too late" and my argument would have just as much validity.

As I said earlier, I think at this point we should agree to disagree. Although I dislike saying it, I feel we are getting into too many details for a video game forum discussion :)

Something interesting I noted in the minutes of the 2019 meeting is that many members feel their current "guidelines" for human missions are very poor, and that there is not enough public outreach on the real risks around back contamination. In addition, one member proposed "reverse planetary parks (my term to describe the proposal)", which would limit humans to a very small zone and leave the rest of the planet for robotic exploration.

On 12/25/2021 at 12:04 PM, tater said:

This makes sense, except—first we need to know what is actually concerning. If it turns out that literally any spores "wrecked" Mars, then that ship has already sailed, no need to do anything. if 300k spores per vehicle is fine, why is 300,001 bad, exactly? There have been experiments showing that spores remain viable in space—but viability is meaningless if they are sitting on Mars, perfectly viable, but never germinate.

The sterilization requirements seem to be based on nothing at all as far as I can tell. Pick a round number. They can't pick "zero" because they could never guarantee that, so they pick some nonzero number as acceptable.

The problem is, we don't know what is actually concerning. To find that out we would need MSR prior to an unsterilized mission.

I highly doubt "300,001" is bad. That is creating a fictional fallacy out of the nature of regulations to criticize them, like trying to argue against legal limits to the drinking age by saying "if drinking on April 12th* is ok, why is drinking on April 1st of that year bad?" and claiming the law is contrived.

"What if it turns out that sterilization efforts have "saved" Mars? We should continue". This argument could be made and has equal merit as yours. I think arguing for no planetary protection is a perfectly acceptable opinion to hold, but it should be supported by simply stating one thinks it is unneeded and worthless, not arguing that planetary protection is a flawed concept or illogical.

*Fictional 21st birthday for the purposes of the example

On 12/25/2021 at 12:15 PM, tater said:

BTW, if the assumption is that any life on Mars would be widely spread, and X samples would likely detect it—why not send the appropriate lab equipment to do it remotely?

Land Starship (no crew first times anyway). Lower rover, fully sterilized. River self tests itself (swabs?) inside SS before leaving as a baseline. Drive rover away from landing site. Take samples, test. Rover can be arbitrarily large within SS cargo mass requirements. Tons. Only job is this.

It is debatable, but there is still the possibility the rover could be contaminated upon leaving its protective shell or whatever. This would be highly debatable however.

Otherwise, the primary reason would be how unknown many still feel about Starship.

They landed it after five tries, but this was a high altitude test. But how long will it take to nail reentry? And then aerobraking? And then the task of landing on Mars, which they only have so many transfer windows to utilize? At that point, from a "trying to get funding" view point, it makes more sense to go with the compartmentalized NASA-ESA style architecture.

There are probably arguments out their for a human presence in analyzation of the samples. Ironically though, despite being the most vital part of the mission, apparently work is significantly delayed on the purpose built MSR receiving facility.

On 12/25/2021 at 1:28 PM, RuBisCO said:

If ice coring samples of potential human landing sites find water ice under the ground (for making fuel for the return trip) and IF they find life in those cores then send a One-way trip of biochemists to figure out what that life is and determine how harmful it can be before sending us back, if ever, I volunteer.  If we become infected with Mars life and can never return, so be it. 

 

A proposal was made in the early 2000s to send a team of four scientists on a one way trip to Mars, and have them "live out the rest of their lives in service of humanity's knowledge". It was seen as an example of the degradation of morality in general in the world, and the desperation of crewed spaceflight advocates to get humans on Mars. It was never taken seriously.

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2 hours ago, SunlitZelkova said:

is like me asking SpaceX to reveal design documents, transcripts of meetings, test data, etc. to "verify Starship's safety" for skeptical members of the public, and then saying "Starship is a joke" because SpaceX didn't "show their work".

Not even close. SpaceX is a private entity, not a government body. The latter needs to be 100% transparent in a way a private company does not—for proprietary issues. For safety WRT flyovers, downrange, etc, yes, 100% transparent for SpaceX as well.

Risk mitigation needs to accurately define risk, then demonstrate that any desired mitigation is in fact effective—or it is not worth doing. "Doing something" just to look like you are doing something is not only pointless, it can be counter productive.

Assume we all agree on the goal—that we will be able to determine if there is extant life on Mars. OK, now, we need to decide what level of contamination threatens accurately determining this. Would we from first principles pull a number out clearly based on what we did in the past, "300,000 spores". OR would we actually try and figure out what the concerns are precisely, and then come up with a number (if any)? I'd do the latter.

 

Edited by tater
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On 12/28/2021 at 9:30 AM, Jacke said:

Most bacteria with enough food will reproduce every 20 minutes or so.  One of the extremes in the other direction is Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which only divides once or twice per day.  It's why antibiotics have to be taken for half a year or more to treat Tuberculosis, as most antibiotics tend to attack during cell division when the organism is more vulnerable.

This is certainly true for human pathogens and commensals which are optimized for warm, nutrient-rich environments (that is, humans) with a lot of competition. It doesn't need to be true for organisms adapted to less lush conditions though. For example, generation times of 2-6 days have been reported for various species of Syntrophobacter. Considering that this is close to the limits of what can be sensibly done in a lab (what would be an overnight culture for E.coli is now already a matter of months) and that we haven't been able to cultivate the vast majority of microorganisms at all, this is probably on the quicker end of the spectrum of microbial generation times.

 

I broadly agree with the points about radioresistance. While it would be in the realm of the biologically possible, I don't consider radioresistant Martian surface life very likely. In order to actively repair gene damage, you would need a fairly active metabolism, for which I don't see the margins in this kind of environment. More importantly though, the surface probably just isn't very attractive. Unless you require access to light or atmospheric carbon dioxide (which could as well be leached from carbonate rocks) there's little reason to expose yourself to a high-radiation environment. And - as a microorganism - you have to go where the water is anyway.

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4 hours ago, Piscator said:

I broadly agree with the points about radioresistance. While it would be in the realm of the biologically possible, I don't consider radioresistant Martian surface life very likely. In order to actively repair gene damage, you would need a fairly active metabolism, for which I don't see the margins in this kind of environment. More importantly though, the surface probably just isn't very attractive. Unless you require access to light or atmospheric carbon dioxide (which could as well be leached from carbonate rocks) there's little reason to expose yourself to a high-radiation environment. And - as a microorganism - you have to go where the water is anyway.

Seems to me site selection for a sample return concerned with life, or a life detection lander (or landers) minus sample return (the extra mass for returning a tiny mass of samples could become more life detection gear), should be aimed at the ice caps, or margins of them anyway, not the lowland flats where we put every lander since that's where it is easiest to land.

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1 hour ago, tater said:

Seems to me site selection for a sample return concerned with life, or a life detection lander (or landers) minus sample return (the extra mass for returning a tiny mass of samples could become more life detection gear), should be aimed at the ice caps, or margins of them anyway, not the lowland flats where we put every lander since that's where it is easiest to land.

I'd also include the Hellas Basin and the bottom of the Vallus Marineris as two low points on Mars with slightly higher pressure and lesser temperature extremes.

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6 minutes ago, Jacke said:

I'd also include the Hellas Basin and the bottom of the Vallus Marineris as two low points on Mars with slightly higher pressure and lesser temperature extremes.

The problem of course is that current MSR is where Perseverance already is, so in the context of this thread, SpaceX needs to wait a decade for what will very likely be equivocal results.

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On 12/28/2021 at 8:52 PM, tater said:

Not even close. SpaceX is a private entity, not a government body. The latter needs to be 100% transparent in a way a private company does not—for proprietary issues. For safety WRT flyovers, downrange, etc, yes, 100% transparent for SpaceX as well.

I have indeed been incorrect in that analogy. I believe my wider argument still stands however, as you will see below.

On 12/28/2021 at 8:52 PM, tater said:

Risk mitigation needs to accurately define risk, then demonstrate that any desired mitigation is in fact effective—or it is not worth doing. "Doing something" just to look like you are doing something is not only pointless, it can be counter productive.

While risk mitigation should be done in a responsible manner, not wonton creation of random rules, I don't think risk mitigation is not worth doing simply because it might be "ineffective".

It's like saying it isn't worth the hassle to put on a seatbelt when driving because you might drive off a cliff at night, which a seatbelt might not save you from.

I make that analogy only because the statements you keep making ridiculing the 300,000 limit are merely possibilities, just as likely as the possibility that the 300,000 limit is helping to protect the Martian environment. Even if it is indeed true that we lack evidence pertaining to why the 300,000 limit is necessary, that does not justify having completely unsterilized uncrewed Starship land on Mars ahead of MSR (which I assume is what you are arguing in defence of, not purely criticizing current planetary protection standards).

On 12/28/2021 at 8:52 PM, tater said:

Assume we all agree on the goal—that we will be able to determine if there is extant life on Mars. OK, now, we need to decide what level of contamination threatens accurately determining this. Would we from first principles pull a number out clearly based on what we did in the past, "300,000 spores". OR would we actually try and figure out what the concerns are precisely, and then come up with a number (if any)? I'd do the latter.

It should be noted there is no evidence the 300,000 number is actually meaningless. There may be a precise reason they chose that number, and the studies supporting it simply aren't available on the internet.

This is a rare conversation on this section of the forum where we actually lack the information to complete the discussion.

On 12/28/2021 at 9:12 PM, tater said:

What if 300k is off by an order of magnitude or two? 3k or 30k was OK, but 300k wrecks all the MSR data. Oops? What if 3G was OK, we could have sent more, cheaper robots with less concern. Also, "oops."

But again, "what if" 300,000 actually is helping to protect the Martian environment? Just because 300,000 might be incorrect does not justify completely abandoning planetary protection protocols.

------

Through this discussion, I have come to the conclusion that more research into planetary protection standards is justified, as is reviewing current protocols.

300,000 may indeed have not been enough, but it may also be working.

However, that does not justify abandoning MSR with planetary protection standards or launching an unsterilized uncrewed Starship. It merely means planetary protection standards need review.

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