Could Microbes Live in Martian Dust? Mission Designers Are Thinking Ahead for Red Planet Crews

A false-color view from NASA’s Opportunity rover taken in 2017 shows the dusty surface of the planet. (Image: © NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/ASU)
Could Mars have little microbes living in its dust? It seems difficult to imagine, with radiation bathing the planet’s surface and no water running in at least most Red Planet regions. But NASA’s Office of Planetary Protection is making plans for what to do if Martian microorganisms turn up.

By Elizabeth Howell |

At The Humans to Mars Summit in Washington, D.C., last week, on May 16, NASA Planetary Protection Officer Lisa Pratt briefly brought up the possibility of Mars microbes in a panel discussion. She said that future explorers should be concerned about possible biological agents in the dust, but she clarified that nobody knows that life exists for sure anywhere on the Red Planet — let alone on the Martian surface.

Life as we know it probably would do poorly in the radiation-filled Red Planet environment, which is exacerbated by the lack of a magnetic field that would have reduced exposure levels on the surface, said Jim Rice, a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute.