How Would NASA tell us about Mars Life... Aug 4, 2006 23:50:17 GMT -6
Post by Chicago Astronomer Joe on Aug 4, 2006 23:50:17 GMT -6
How to tell Earthlings that Martian life is here
A plan should be formulated for how to tell the public if signs of Martian life are found by future missions to the Red Planet, say scientists from NASA and the SETI Institute. Otherwise, incorrect information could be leaked to the public before studies on the potential life could be completed.
The Spirit and Opportunity rovers that continue to explore Mars are not designed to search for life. But if a sample return mission is ever sent to Mars, scientists could test for it in the rocks brought back to Earth.
In 1996, news of possible signs of life in a Martian meteorite called ALH84001 leaked out ahead of a press conference that had been scheduled by NASA. This was partly because a high-ranking White House official told a prostitute about the meteorite. NASA had to scramble to reschedule its press conference to an earlier date to satisfy the growing demand for information from the press and the public.
That rescheduling was just an inconvenience, but bigger problems could arise in connection with a Mars sample return mission, say John Rummel, NASA's planetary protection officer in Washington DC, and Margaret Race of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, both in the US.
The ALH84001 researchers were able to carry out their studies for years before finding themselves in the media spotlight. But the public will know about the Mars sample return mission ahead of time, so there will be intense media scrutiny from the beginning, they say.
Lost in Interpretation
"If you're going to be working in public you have to have some sort of reasonable way of ensuring that the information going to the public is right," Rummel told New Scientist. "You wouldn't want to have each hypothesis announced as if it were a fact."
"There's not much to be gained by rushing to publication, and much to be lost – mainly your credibility and public confidence," he adds.
Rummel says it would make sense to continually release raw pieces of data – like how much the sample rocks weigh – but to wait before announcing any interpretation of what the data means.
"You may have a whole information stream that's basically labelled [by the scientists] as unreliable, raw, maybe stupid" but that is released very quickly by the research team, he says. This stream is similar to how information is currently released from the Mars rover missions.
After any Mars rocks are returned to Earth, preliminary NASA plans call for them to be isolated and quarantined in a specially constructed laboratory. They would be tested there to determine whether they pose any threat to life on Earth and, if deemed safe, released to other laboratories for further study.
The communications strategy should emphasise the scientific benefits of the sample return mission, while not ignoring public concerns about a potential biohazard, Rummel says.
A lobbying group has already formed to prevent such a mission from happening, citing biohazard concerns. These include the chance that alien microbes could be the ultimate “invasive” species and could displace their terrestrial counterparts, upsetting existing ecosystems. Any living Martian microbes could “cause unknown difficulties” to life on Earth, Rummel admits.
NASA’s plans for a Mars Sample Return mission in 2016 were recently cancelled because of budget cuts (see NASA to divert cash from science into shuttle). The idea may be revived, however, in a new round of mission proposals due on Tuesday.
Full story here: www.newscientistspace.com/article/dn9656?DCMP=NLC-nletter&nsref=dn9656
A high-ranking White House official told a prostitute about the meteorite.
Hee hee, Is this right?