The clock’s ticking for effort to identify Martian life

City on Mars
An artist’s conception shows a Martian city linked to launch pads. (SpaceX via YouTube)

STANFORD, Calif. — NASA has been looking for life on Mars for more than 40 years, but the quest could get a lot more complicated when earthly life arrives en masse, perhaps within the next decade.

“There is a ticking clock now,” Princeton astrobiologist Chris Chyba said at last week’s Breakthrough Discuss conference, conducted at Stanford University.

The issue has the potential to pit scientists like Chyba against rocketeers like SpaceX billionaire Elon Musk, who wants to start sending settlers to Mars by the mid-2020s. When humans and all the supplies they need start arriving by the tons, there’s a risk that their biological signature could overwhelm any faint traces of ancient or modern-day life on the Red Planet.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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