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The terrifying sci-fi movie all space exploration fans should watch

As space missions increase, so does the potential for extraterrestrial life forms finding their way back to Earth.

The Robotic Arm on NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander carries a scoop of Martian soil bound for the spacecraft's microscope
This story was published on our Space Business newsletter, A glimpse at the economic possibilities of space.
  • Ana Campoy
By Ana Campoy

Deputy editor, global finance and economics

Published

Dear readers,

Welcome to Quartz’s newsletter on the economic possibilities of the extraterrestrial sphere, this time hosted by Adario Strange, Quartz’s media and entertainment reporter. Please forward widely, and let us know what you think. This week: micro-aliens and Moon crash.

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Last month, NASA launched the James Webb telescope into space, a tool that will help Earth look deeper into the mysteries of the universe than ever before, perhaps even detecting signs of life from afar. But in the near term, scientists are focused on first contact with extraterrestrials that could be closer to home, and microbial.

The dark side of such a scenario is played out in the 2017 film Life, possibly the most terrifying science fiction film of all time. In the 2017 movie, Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Reynolds helm a crew of scientists aboard the International Space Station (ISS), where they discover a dormant cell from what appears to be a simple life form in a soil sample from Mars.

After trying to incite a reaction from the cell, one scientist manages to bring it to life. This turns out to be a bad idea, and without giving too much away—the movie highlights the risk of such a life form finding its way back to Earth.

Although the plot of Life might seem far-fetched, the international Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) has addressed such a scenario in its 2020 Planetary Protection Policy paper. COSPAR, which was launched in 1958 in the UK, brings together roughly 3,000 scientists every two years in different locales to discuss potential problems impacting space exploration.

“The Earth must be protected from the potential hazard posed by extraterrestrial matter carried by a spacecraft returning from an interplanetary mission,” the COSPAR document states. “The conduct of scientific investigations of possible extraterrestrial life forms, precursors, and remnants must not be jeopardized.”

The potential threats such space missions carry with regard to biological contaminants reaching Earth are also highlighted in a recent paper by McGill University professor Anthony Ricciardi and his colleagues.

“The likelihood of a live extraterrestrial organism hitching a ride, being successfully transported to Earth and establishing a foothold here is thought to be quite small,” said Ricciardi, a professor of Invasion Ecology & Aquatic Ecosystems. “But current biosecurity approaches must be enhanced to address these hazards as space missions increase in frequency and scale.”

The prospect Ricciardi outlines is so realistic that NASA has an Office of Planetary Protection, which recently hired a new head.

Your pal,

Adario

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Imagery interlude

An errant portion of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is on a collision course with the Moon. Amateur astronomers expect the four-ton piece of debris to slam into the lunar surface on March 4.

The rocket, seen below during its 2015 launch, got stranded after releasing NOAA’s Deep Space Climate Observatory. Its impact could give scientists valuable information about what lies below the face of the Moon.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off in 2015.
Image copyright: SpaceX

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Get obsessed. Thank Charles Darwin for your office chair. He was the first person known to slap wheels on a chair (so he could roll around and look at specimens). The evolution of the office chair—and more—are all discussed in this episode of the Quartz Obsession podcast. 🎧 Sit back and listen to all of this season’s episodes on Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google | Stitcher

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Writer Tim Fernholz is on leave. He’ll be back in February.

This was issue 120 of our newsletter. Hope your week is out of this world! Please send large pieces of space debris, tips, and informed opinions to ana@qz.com.

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