By exploring how we define life, astrobiology explores some of the most profound philosophical questions that have fascinated humanity. For example, how does life propagate and thrive in the universe, and how can we detect it? Finding indigenous micro-organic life on Mars, alive or extinct, will open a new chapter in our knowledge of the evolution of life bound by our planet. However, there is a delicate interplay to remember between the need to preserve the critical areas of astrobiological significance with the areas that might be critical for the crew’s survival. And the need to pay close attention to this interplay is coming up sooner than we think.
To examine these questions, the fast-growing field of astrobiology incorporates molecular biology, biophysics, biochemistry, chemistry, astronomy, astrophysics, and many other sciences. I’m particularly intrigued by life detection protocols already being developed on Earth’s extreme environments for other planets.
I met Siddharth Pandey Ph.D. through a newspace India community on Signal. I have written about India’s growing new space ecosystem and analog field research stations.
Siddharth heads the Amity Mars Analog Research Station in Ladakh and the Space Centre and the Centre of Excellence in Astrobiology (ACoeA) at Amity University in Mumbai. As a result of his work in Ladakh, Siddharth has published some fascinating results at the International Journal of Astrobiology.
Siddharth and the team of researchers reported the following about the 2016 Ladakh site visit:
“Life detection protocols are relevant for the preparation of future life detection missions to Mars, ocean Worlds and ice- covered Moons. Brines, waters and sediment/rock samples were co-analysed using the Adenosine 5′-triphosphate (ATP) Luminometry Assay and the Lymulus Amebocyte Assay (LAL) to determine the amount of lipopolysaccharides (LPSs). Both these biomarkers are proxies for recent biological activity and active biomass distribution across the study sites... This campaign has confirmed the relevance of clays, brines and permafrost as interest targets of research on Mars for life detection and biomarker preservation as a proxy for recent and ancient life.” (2019)
As evidenced in the scientific literature, astrobiologists are advancing and testing some of the most basic assumptions about life in extreme conditions. Taking the ongoing research and conversations a step further, a recent report from the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine explains the ongoing debate about the distinction between a planet’s organic alien life or the evolution of organisms brought by crewed missions - i.e., forward biological contamination. Prepared by the Committee on Planetary Protection for NASA, the report is titled Evaluation of Bioburden Requirements for Mars Missions (2021).
“Subsurface areas are the most interesting locations for scientific exploration of extant or extinct life on Mars and constitute the most important to protect from harmful forward contamination.”
The report underscores the urgency in developing planetary protection protocols to protect indigenous life on Mars for surface and subsurface operations. One of the most poignant observations throughout the report relates to the lack of response protocols for the subsurface.
“Potential approaches to designing a planetary protection strategy for human missions include appropriate buffer zones between areas of human activity and locations of astrobiological significance, as well as continued scientific exploration and scientific understanding for life on Mars by humans and robotic technologies.”
Confident that I’ll see a crewed flight to Mars in my lifetime, it is the myriad of astrobiological implications that are fascinating to entertain right now. In the year 2021 alone, for example, six robotic rovers were operational on Mars, including the first helicopter ever to fly on an alien planet. The pace of robotic exploration will only pick up over the coming decades and the forward biological contamination’s ethical and scientific implications will need to be addressed quicker.
Diego Pelaia is an Argentine artist with whom I often work on many projects. In addition to a rich range in oil paintings, watercolors, drawings, and digital concept art, Diego is a meditation instructor. His interests in western and oriental philosophy, art history, psychology, Greek mythology, and astronomy inspire his profession.
I enjoy the metaphorical depth and nuance in his work, especially regarding space technologies and infrastructure. “Colorcraft,” “Softflow,” and the main homepage image are commissioned artwork for Moni-07b.