There's an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal about what might happen if NASA's Curiosity detects signs of actual, living microbial life on Mars. While it might sound incredibly unlikely, a recent study by Alexander Pavlov of NASA has calculated that simple organic molecules, such as formaldehyde, could survive as little as two inches below the Martian surface. He even speculates that more complex molecules like amino acids could be found at similar depths inside craters.
So, despite the low odds, what would happen if we actually found life? And who would get to control it?
Matt Ridley of the Wall Street Journal offers some possible scenarios:
In some ways it is bound to be an anticlimax. Like the announcement of the Higgs Boson last week, however magical the moment may be in historical terms, it will not affect most people's daily lives. We can celebrate, congratulate, revel in the detail and philosophize on the meaning, but earthly life will continue as if little had happened.
Pretty soon, though, a political angle will emerge. For one thing, politicians and journalists from countries other than America will start to grumble that this discovery must "belong" to all humankind and not just to NASA. The U.S. government, despite having forked out all the costs of exploring Mars so far, including the $2.5 billion cost of Curiosity, will probably agree. But who will end up making the key decisions?
The United Nations is almost bound to set up an agency to oversee what experiments are planned, but the U.S. may prefer a different body. Private consortia may conceivably start to plan how to go and retrieve a sample, dreaming of the riches to be garnered from displaying it on Earth. If so, nongovernmental organizations will quickly begin to worry about the safety of such a scheme and to champion the rights of Martian microbes to be conserved and respected in their lairs.
As far as I can discern there has been very little public discussion of these issues. The Outer Space Treaty, opened for signature in 1967 by the U.S., U.K. and Soviet Union and ratified by 100 governments, says that no country can claim political sovereignty over land in outer space. The treaty does not forbid private ownership of land in space, however, and it would be up to terrestrial courts to decide if such claims were recognized. Also NASA has clear policies on how to prevent the contamination of one planet with the life of another.
These are all actually very good points — and it's clear that we're not really ready for this discovery despite the fact that we're actively trying to make this discovery.
There's more at the WSJ, so be sure to read the entire article.
Image via Swinburne University. Inset image via Daily Mail/AP.