If we find alien life, how will we protect it from our own ‘microbial stowaways’?

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An artist's concept depicts astronauts and human habitats on Mars. Image: NASA

When we venture beyond the moon, we’ll be bringing trillions of microbial stowaways with us. Which complicates things. If we discover life out there, how will we know we didn’t bring it with us? More importantly, how do we safeguard it from terrestrial invaders and vice versa?

Of course, the ultimate goal is to send humans to Mars and beyond. Compared to probes, rovers, and returned samples, preventing human contamination is much harder.

Humans are the source of both forward and backward contamination. It is virtually impossible to sterilize crew members as completely as robots since we humans host trillions of (mostly) symbiotic microorganisms from ten thousand species in our microbiome.

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Further, our microbiome doesn’t just stay put on and in our bodies. These microorganisms make their way into the surrounding environment.

For both issues, the best options now seem to be sterilization, containment, and quarantine.

But sterilization runs the risk of destroying potential physical signs of new life forms, while quarantine may become increasingly difficult as we ramp up exploration. We need to research better ways of integrating the human factor into the long-term ideal of planetary protection.

Read full, original post: How Can We Protect Alien Life From Us—and Us From It?

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