So what would happen if a baby was born on Mars?
DR PATRICK HARKNESS is a modestly-spoken man. Most of us wouldn’t be quite as humble about our endeavours as he is – after all, the Glasgow University scientist has developed a key piece of kit without which human exploration of Mars just wouldn’t be feasible.
On Mars, low gravity makes it almost impossible to drill – the lack of weight means it’s extremely hard to get the necessary heft behind drilling machinery to crack the surface. But Harkness’s ultrasonic drill removes that problem – and think how important drilling will be on the red planet. It’s more likely we will live underground. We’ll also be searching for water beneath the surface, and microbial signs of life – whether long-dead or still alive and kicking – will probably be underground away from killer solar rays.
For Dr Harkness, though, there are big ethical questions over what we do with samples found on Mars. The plan for a “sample and return” mission is already well under way. Its first stage would see a robot mission bring back rocks and possibly even evidence of extinct or extant microbial life. The work done in Glasgow has advanced the science around “sample and return”, but Harkness worries about the possible risk of Martian rocks contaminating Earth.
“When you take samples from another planet and bring them to Earth, you have to be absolutely certain they pose no threat,” he says, “and as unlikely as it may appear that there will be any virus or protein in these Martian samples, chances can not be taken.”
Dr Harkness speculates the safest plan might be to take the samples no further than the International Space Station and analyse them there. Perhaps, they could be rendered inert on the ISS and then transferred to Earth.
He’s conscious of the fact that with private companies now potentially leapfrogging governments in the space race that business needs to be regulated in the same way as agencies such as Nasa for safety’s sake. “You need regulation to stop crazy people putting the planet at risk,” Harkness says from his office in the School of Engineering. “There’s nothing wrong with doing things privately as long as they are regulated. If people just went to Mars and brought back samples that would be dangerous.”
Another ethical worry for Harkness is the inevitable result of colonisation: babies. “Say someone got pregnant on Mars – then you have a child who didn’t chose to be born on another planet. They will grow up experiencing one third of the gravity of Earth so their muscle tone will not be the same, their heart will not be strong enough to pump blood to their brain if they ever returned to Earth.”
Despite his caution, he’s pretty confident there will be men and women walking on Mars within his lifetime
– and he’s only 38.