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Is there life on the surface of Mars? The clock is ticking on scientists’ window to solve that long-standing question before astronauts—and the microbes that live on them—contaminate the planet. Today, at a meeting in Washington, D.C., of NASA’s planetary science advisory committee, the agency’s new planetary protection officer raised the possibility of opening up a few of the planet’s most promising regions to more aggressive exploration.

Just a few weeks into the job, Lisa Pratt, formerly a geomicrobiologist at Indiana University in Bloomington, has signaled that she wants the office to be open to the notion that a degree of contamination might be necessary to explore several of the planet’s most habitable spots. Previously, the office has served as a watchdog to prevent the contamination of Mars and other planets with microbes from Earth, and vice versa. But now, time is pressing, given NASA’s long-term goals, Pratt says. “No matter what we do, the minute we’ve got humans in the area we’ve got a less pristine, less clean state,” Pratt said at the meeting. “Let’s hope we know before the humans get there, one way or the other, if there is an ecosystem at or near the surface.”

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Category: Science