So what would hap­pen if a baby was born on Mars?

The Herald on Sunday - - NEWS FOCUS -

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.

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