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Mars Life Could Complicate Terraforming
Posted In: Mars Coverage  8/6/11
By: Chris Capps

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In the past we've covered the topic charting the possibilities of terraforming the Martian surface.  But how has the playing field changed now that NASA has announced the very real possibility of water on the Martian surface?  Will this simplify the process of terraforming and make it more timely?  Or will there be new difficulties ahead now that we have discovered the possibility that water and even life may already exist on the Martian surface?

First, let's take into account what world building may mean for us.  If we undertook the complex and exceedingly difficult process of building Mars into a habitable planet, we could very well be looking at the single most difficult and simultaneously the single greatest experiment and undertaking of engineering ever ventured.  The transformation of a dead planet into a place inhabitable by people could one day mean the survival of the human race - if successful.  And from there it could mean the movement of humans into space where they can thrive and even as a species outlast our own sun in one form or another.

But there will be some difficulties with the discovery of water and the possible discovery of life as well.  Just as scientists wish to be careful with the ecosystems of creatures on our own planet, scientists have always been wary of how we influence life on other planets as well.  The possibility of life on Europa and Titan have been very sensitive subjects as scientists do not wish to unduly influence or damage ecosystems that may exist there.  And life on Mars will be no exception.  If life is discovered beneath the permafrost, they will want to ensure the single celled organisms are studied thoroughly and given a chance to thrive.  To ignore their existence and simply use them would make us quite literally alien invaders.  And that similarity in our cultural consciousness is an already uncomfortable notion.

But there is another possibility in light of other technology that has arisen since the study of Mars began.  With genetic engineering and the need for an enriched atmosphere on the planet, one day scientists may be faced with a very difficult decision.  Given the choice between allowing another species to exist peacefully on its own - even a single celled organism we would have never thought twice about on Earth - and transforming it to give the planet an atmosphere and even eventually oxygen to breathe, could be a very large issue looming in the mix.  If already preexisting life on the planet were brought back to Earth, studied, and modified to return and make the world fit for human life by providing oxygen and eventually an atmosphere, it may wipe out all current life on Mars but make it fit for human habitation in a few centuries.  Needless to say this would be a heavy enough question for scientists to ponder for decades unless the ethical ramifications were ignored altogether.


 

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