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The Okarian rover was in trouble. The yellow Humvee was making slow progress across a frigid, otherworldly landscape when planetary scientist Pascal Lee felt the rover tilt backward. Out the windshield, Lee, director of NASA’s Haughton Mars Project, saw only sky. The rear treads had broken through a crack in the sea ice and were sinking into the cold water.

True, there are signs of water on Mars, but not that much. Lee and his crew were driving the Okarian (named for the yellow Martians in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel The Warlord of Mars) across the Canadian Arctic to a research station in Haughton Crater that served in this dress rehearsal as a future Mars post. On a 496-kilometer road trip along the Northwest Passage, crew members pretended they were explorers on a long haul across the Red Planet to test what to expect if and when humans go to Mars.

What they learned in that April 2009 ride may become relevant sooner rather than later. NASA has declared its intention to send humans to Mars in the 2030s The private sector plans to get there even earlier: In September, Elon Musk announced his aim to launch the first crewed SpaceX mission to Mars as soon as 2024.

“That’s not a typo,” Musk said in Australia at an International Astronautical Congress meeting. “Although it is aspirational.”

Musk’s six-year timeline has some astrobiologists in a panic. If humans arrive too soon, these researchers fear, any chance of finding evidence of life — past or present — on Mars may be ruined.

“It’s really urgent,” says astrobiologist Alberto Fairén of the Center for Astrobiology in Madrid and Cornell University. Humans take whole communities of microorganisms with them everywhere, spreading those bugs indiscriminately.

Planetary geologist Matthew Golombek of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., agrees, adding, “If you want to know if life exists there now, you kind of have to approach that question before you send people.”

A long-simmering debate over how rigorously to protect other planets from Earth life, and how best to protect life on Earth from other planets, is coming to a boil. The prospect of humans arriving on Mars has triggered a flurry of meetings and a spike in research into what “planetary protection” really means.

One of the big questions is whether Mars has regions that might be suitable for life and so deserve special protection. Another is how big a threat Earth microbes might be to potential Martian life (recent studies hint less of a threat than expected). Still, the specter of human biomes mucking up the Red Planet before a life-hunting mission can even launch has raised bitter divisions within the Mars research community.


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