The need for operating guidelines and a decision making framework applicable to the discovery of non-intelligent extraterrestrial life
While formal principles have been adopted for the eventuality of detecting intelligent life in our galaxy (SETI Principles), no such guidelines exist for the discovery of non-intelligent extraterrestrial life within the solar system. Current scientifically based planetary protection policies for solar system exploration address how to undertake exploration, but do not provide clear guidance on what to do if and when life is detected. Considering that martian life could be detected under several different robotic and human exploration scenarios in the coming decades, it is appropriate to anticipate how detection of non-intelligent, microbial life could impact future exploration missions and activities, especially on Mars. This paper discusses a proposed set of interim guidelines based loosely on the SETI Principles and addresses issues extending from the time of discovery through future handling and treatment of extraterrestrial life on Mars or elsewhere. Based on an analysis of both scientific and ethical considerations, there is a clear need for developing operating protocols applicable at the time of discovery and a decision making framework that anticipates future missions and activities, both robotic and human. There is growing scientific confidence that the discovery of extraterrestrial life in some form is nearly inevitable. If and when life is discovered beyond Earth, non-scientific dimensions may strongly influence decisions about the nature and scope of future missions and activities. It is appropriate to encourage international discussion and consideration of the issues prior to an event of such historical significance.