It’s hard to believe that in 15 years or less, we, as humans, could be able to consider ourselves an interplanetary species. Several companies are currently competing to put people on Mars by the 2020’s. Alas, recent debate has arisen over the possible ethical issues associated with the so called “contamination” of the Martian environment with terrestrial (Earth) life. It is this mindset in particular which will be detrimental to human advances in space colonisation when future colonies are attempting to become self-supporting if faced with hostile environments such as those on Mars.
A recent study has shown that an ordinary Antarctic lichen, Pleopsidium chlorophanum, has the ability to adapt itself to the Martian environment in little over a month. The experiment, conducted within the Mars Simulation Facility, Berlin, tested the photosynthetic activity (rate of food production) of the lichen within simulated Martian environmental conditions: low temperature, low humidity, low air pressure, air composition, soil composition, day-night cycles, and to top it off, high solar radiation. In addition, the lichen was placed in different “niches” – completely exposed to solar radiation or semi-protected by growing within rock crevices as it does on Earth. Protected niche conditions provided the lichen with the greatest chance of surviving the intense radiation and low humidity environment.
Not surprisingly, results found that lichen in the unprotected conditions couldn’t handle the intense radiation and, as a consequence, mostly died. On the other hand however, the protected lichen not only survived, it actually adapted to its new environment, as suggested by a steady increase in its activity over the course of the experiment, even exceeding its production rates from its natural habitat.
So what does this all mean? Evidently, it shows that terrestrial life can adapt to not only survive, but thrive in the Martian environment, justifying our efforts to make sure any equipment sent to Mars is sterile before launch. It also means that natural Martian life could be hiding away in the same types of places. As such, conservationists would have us preserve Mars in its dead, red state for the sake of protecting the mere possibility that Martians could exist. But where would that leave us? Where would that leave your children and your grandchildren?
Wallowing on an overpopulated and polluted Earth seems like a fairly likely scenario. I’m making it known that it doesn’t have to be this way!
I believe, what with current efforts from companies such as Mars One and NASA, that the colonisation of Mars is an inevitable and important step in the evolution of mankind. Man is powerful because he is able to manipulate his environment to suit himself, and it is with this in mind that we, The Greens as it were, propose the terraformation of Mars with the purpose of creating a habitable world – a Mars that can support life. It becomes clear then that lichens such as Pleopsidium chlorophanum are to play a major role in achieving this goal, thus ensuring our continuity as a species.