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Microbes to Mars

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By:Lewis Dartnell


Russian space scientists are currently locked in a race against time. The Fobos-Grunt space probe was launched successfully on Tuesday, but then failed to fire its own rocket engine to leave Earth orbit. The unmanned spacecraft is currently stranded just above our heads, and the rocket scientists have only a fortnight to successfully contact the stricken probe and fire its propulsion system before the batteries fail and it reenters the Earth's atmosphere as an expensive shooting star.

The Fobos-Grunt mission is of great personal interest to me as it was heading for the larger moon of Mars. Not only was this mission promising to bring back scoops of Phobos' surface material ('grunt' is Russian for soil) - an important precursor to returning samples of the martian surface itself, potentially holding signs of martian microbial life - but it is also carrying a remarkable biology experiment. The LIFE capsule has passengers onboard: small samples of carefully-selected bacteria and other microorganisms, including some that I work on. The idea is to see whether microbes can survive the unprotected journey to Mars and back, testing the feasibility of the hypothesis that life on Earth may itself have been seeded from Mars, hitchhiking within a meteorite.

The Russian space agency has suffered a string of such set-backs in its Mars exploration programme - 16 consecutive failures since the 1960s. This underlines just how difficult space travel is. Any number of thousands of components or lines of software code can be faulty, and space is an exceedingly unforgiving place.

Yet it's something that we keep trying. There is something deep within the human psyche that compels us to strive towards the horizon, exploring the unknown. And as JFK so eloquently put it, whilst announcing the Apollo programme, "we chose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard'.

More recently, there's been a shift in the driving force behind human space exploration: not so much the assertion of national prestige, but private corporations chasing a profit. Space has become a bankable commodity. First, it will serve as an adventure activity and holiday destination - short suborbital flights and stays in space hotels - but before too long I'm confident we'll begin exploiting extraterrestrial natural resources. These might include particles of the solar wind soaked into the lunar surface, which would provide fuel for fusion reactors (once we crack that technology), or the huge lumps of metal offered by many asteroids; we'll begin mining the skies.

For me, though, there is a clear fundamental reason for humanity to ensure a long-term future in space. Because it will ensure a long-term future for humanity. Any number of potential global catastrophes, including comet or asteroid impacts, threaten our species' existence on the planet. We can't afford to risk all our eggs in one planetary basket. Independent, off-world colonies would serve as an insurance policy against the unthinkable happening and allow recolonisation of our homeworld after the apocalypse.

Humanity inevitably has a future in space; we just need to keep our eyes on the horizon and stride forwards.

Dr. Lewis Dartnell is an astrobiology research scientist at the Centre for Planetary Sciences, University College London. He is talking at the iq2 If conference on Saturday 26th November on 'Humanity's Future in Space', and how we'll get from here to there.

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