In 1969, Michael “cloning dinosaurs is a bad idea” Crichton, published a tense sci-fi thriller called The Andromeda Strain. The novel follows the outbreak of extraterrestrial germs in Arizona as a team of scientists rush to contain it.
As we continue to explore space, scientists must seriously consider whether The Andromeda Strain could come to pass. And it’s not just Earth that could be at risk–there’s also a chance that we could be the aliens that infect another world.
Pandemics are on everybody’s mind right now, for obvious reasons. We’ve all see the danger that a brand-new virus poses. Maybe that’s why scientists are thinking more about how to protect ourselves–and other worlds–from biological contamination.
“I have heard from some colleagues in the human spaceflight area that they can see how, in the current environment, the general public could become more concerned about bringing back some alien microbe, virus or contamination,” said Scott Hubbard, a professor of aeronautics at Stanford University and the first Mars program director for NASA.
Hubbard is especially concerned about Elon Musk’s attitude toward space exploration. He questioned whether Musk used proper “planetary protection” measures when launching his Tesla Roadster into space. The vehicle could potentially be contaminated with Earthly germs. If it crashes into another object, it could spread those microorganisms.
More and more private companies are hoping to launch mini-satelites, or cubesats, into space thanks to SpaceX. The more stuff we send up there, the more likely it is that someone’s accidentally going to sneeze on a cubesat and cause a space pandemic.
Okay, that might be a little exaggeration. But preventing contamination is still a major concern. Sterilizing the equipment, payloads, and people aboard spacecrafts is difficult and expensive.
Currently, there’s no centralized agency to enforce planetary protection measures. Why NASA might have its own oversight, private commercial ventures like SpaceX aren’t required to follow them. That raises the real possibility of contaminating the surface of Mars, for example, when we finally send manned missions there. Not only could it prove catastrophic for the planet, but Earth microorganisms could ruin scientific study of Mars.
That covers what scientists call “forward contamination,” but there’s still the possibility of “back contamination” as spacecraft, physical samples, and astronauts return home. According to Scott Hubbard, “the chance that rocks from Mars that are millions of years old will contain an active life form that could infect Earth is extremely low. But, the samples returned by MSR will be quarantined and treated as though they are the Ebola virus until proven safe.”
Scientists might be closing the barn door after the interstellar horse has bolted when it comes to planetary protection.
We’ve already found samples of bacteria on the outside of the International Space Station that Russian scientists insist was not there when the station launched. (NASA disputes the claims that Russian cosmonauts also found space-borne bacteria and plankton in their suits.)
There’s also a theory that interstellar objects like Oumuamua, which passed through our solar system in 2017, could bring Earth germs to other worlds. These objects would act a little like cosmic bumblebees, picking up microorganisms from our atmosphere and carrying them beyond the solar system.