Mars One / Bryan Versteeg
An artist's depiction of Mars One astronauts and their colony on the Red Planet.
By Mike Wall
A private Mars colony project will do its best to avoid disturbing potential Red Planet life rather than aggressively hunt it down.
The Netherlands-based nonprofit Mars One, which opened its astronaut-selection process Monday, plans to land four people on the Red Planet in 2023 as the vanguard of a permanent human colony on the Red Planet, with new crews arriving every two years thereafter.
Human explorers and their trillions of microbes will doubtless contaminate whatever site is chosen for the settlement, Mars One officials said, so the organization will try to pick a place unlikely to host indigenous life. [Mars One: Colonizing the Red Planet (Gallery)]
"The most important thing is that you localize the pollution," Mars One Chief Executive Officer and co-founder Bas Lansdorp said during a news conference. "So you make sure that humans don't go to places where there's the highest chance of finding life, to make sure that if there is life (on Mars), that it will remain preserved."
MarsOne is working with experts to minimize the risks its colonization effort may pose to potential Red Planet lifeforms. For example, the group's advisory board includes John Rummel, chairman of the Committee on Space Research's Panel on Planetary Protection, Lansdorp said.
It may be tough to bring those risks down too much. While Mars One hasn't picked a precise location for its settlement yet, the organization is targeting a swath of the Red Planet between 40 and 45 degrees north latitude, Lansdorp said.
Sites within this band likely have enough of two critical resources — subsurface water (in the form of ice) and solar energy — to support a colony, he added. But underground water could also help sustain microbes, whose toughness and near ubiquity continue to amaze scientists, at least here on Earth.
It's unclear at the moment if Mars One— which will fund its ambitious settlement efforts primarily by staging a global reality-TV event around the entire process — will take a serious stab at finding signs of Red Planet life.
Mars One astronauts will not necessarily be scientists, after all. Anyone over the age of 18 is eligible to apply, with the selection committee prizing traits such as intelligence, resourcefulness, determination and psychological stability over academic background, officials said.
"Science is, of course, not the main focus of what we are doing," Lansdorp said. "The main focus is getting those humans there and making sure that they survive."
Crew members will take some scientific gear with them, he added, but Mars One officials won't dictate what the experiments should be.
"It's really up to them," Lansdorp said. "There will of course be a budget for equipment that they want to take for scientific research."
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