NASA hopes to go full speed ahead with its "Road to Mars" to land humans on the planet, and Elon Musk wants to build a city of a million on Mars by 2100, but it is rare for anyone in the debates to mention planetary protection. I think many assume it has already been dismissed by simple arguments like this one of Zubrin's - but far from it. As some of the listeners said to me when I was guest on the Space Show last Monday, the disconnect is enormous.

This is another in my now rather frequent articles to reassure people who are panicking because of news stories, saying that there is a chance we will all die in a big future cataclysm. No, this is all total bullshit! (I can use the word bullshit because here in the UK it is a very mild word, not even a swear word quite, e.g. often used on prime time TV, though I understand it is  a strong word in some parts of the States).

This is a talk I gave last summer to a small conference "The Search for Extraterrestrial Life - Europa&Enceladus" in Oxford, summer 2015. It's about the idea that when searching for life in our solar system, we could find something that's a "super positive" outcome of overwhelming value for us and future generations. And that if so we need to take great care we don't lose the opportunity or destroy it by introducing Earth life by mistake.

Back in January, Bradley Schaefer published a finding that promised to be a bombshell: KIC 8462852 had been dimming at a rate of nearly 20% per century since 1890 (Schaefer, 2016). The finding was widely reported as refutation of the comet family hypothesis, and further evidence that KIC 8462852 might be home to a Type 2 alien civilization. 

Mars is Earth like in some ways, but in other ways it's very different with its global dust storms every two years, its thick sheets of dry ice at its ice caps in winter. Any fresh water is close to its very low boiling point in the near vacuum. And the eccentric orbit also has a big impact on its seasons. So how do its seasons work exactly and what effect does this have on its climate?

Yes, a thousand of them indeed. The asteroid belt, and Near Earth Asteroids. I don't mean living on them like the little prince:

The Little Prince

That's not very practical without an atmosphere.

Nor living inside them as some suggest.

But rather, using materials from the asteroid belt and first, from the close Near Earth Asteroids, to build large habitats following the Stanford Torus design and others.

NASA currently has Mars sample return as their priority flagship mission not just for this decade but for the next one as well. They were recommended to do this in the 2012 decadal review. It is good for geology, nobody doubts that. But it is motivated mainly by the search for ancient life on Mars. Some exobiologists have warned that it is likely to be no more conclusive than the Mars meteorites we already have. They regard it as is little more than a technology demo for the search for life.

The longest time anyone has spent in space is just over fourteen months. So far, astronauts have recovered surprisingly quickly, even after the longest duration spaceflights. Within a few weeks they are almost back to normal health. There are some longer term effects, on load bearing bones, which may take a couple of years to clear up, and very rarely, permanent effects on the eyes.

But what about longer periods in space than that? Their condition continually deteriorates for as long as they are in space and so far nobody has spent as long as two years in space; the record is fourteen months. So the question is still wide open for longer duration flights.

First let's look at what we know already.

On February 15th, 2013, as the approach of asteroid (367943) Duende was being closely monitored,  something far more alarming happened. Duende approached the Earth was expected to pass nearly 27,700 km above the Earth's surface, well inside the boundaries of the ring of geosynchronous satellites but nearly perpendicular to it, but then the Chelyabinsk superbolide entry occurred, followed by the explosion and the fall of the large meteorite in the Russian Lake Chebarkul. 

It caused damage to hundreds of buildings and injuries to nearly 1,500 people. 

The Ordnance Survey (national mapping agency for the UK) has just released their first map of a region on another planet. It's a high resolution relief shaded contour map, and includes the area of Mars where ExoMars will land in 2018. Here is a close up view of it with the ESA landing ellipse in Oxia Planum superimposed. 

Preview of the full map - low resolution, again with landing ellipse.