World-renowned astronomer Duncan Steel advocates sending bacteria to Mars, rather than humans. Photo: Charles Anderson

‘Badass’ scientist moves to Nelson


He has an asteroid and a science fiction robot named after him. He has worked on space programmes around the world, authored hundreds of articles on all matters celestial and helped produce an Emmy-winning documentary.

He even introduced the Sex Pistols at one of the band’s first ever gigs in 1975.

And now, Duncan Steel also has some bad news for President Donald Trump.

Despite being named as one of the most “badass scientists” in the world, Duncan has kept a low profile since moving to Nelson two years ago.

Instead he has focused on writing two new books to add to his anthology.

One of these proposes that instead of trying to send humans to Mars, we should be looking at sending bacteria instead. Trump has proposed putting a human on the surface of Mars during his presidency.

“That’s just not going to happen,” Duncan says. “It’s too expensive, it’s too dangerous to send humans there and the probability for success is too small. There are too many things to go wrong.”

Duncan should know. The English-born astronomer first came to New Zealand in the 1980s to set up a radar station near Christchurch for observing meteors. He also helped create the first efforts to search the Southern Sky for “near earth objects” that might collide with the planet.

Since then, the Royal Astronomical Society member has worked on space programmes across the world, including NASA and the European Space Agency and also advised the Australian Department of Defence.

Duncan’s work also led to a minor planet/asteroid formally named for him by the International Astronomical Union — (4713) Steel — and also a lunar-roving robot, again called ‘Steel’, in one of Arthur C. Clarke’s novels. He also claims to have introduced the Sex Pistols at their first ever gig at Queen Elizabeth College in London.

His latest project, however, is working on a book advocating spreading genetically-engineered microbial life for all extra-terrestrial locations found to be barren.

“I don’t think we are going to find life elsewhere in the solar system,” Duncan says. “So, we should be thinking about seeding it.”

He says there is a window of opportunity to start developing bacterial life that could survive in an environment like Mars.

“If no life can be found on Mars, and I bet on that, then that is not to say there couldn’t be life on Mars. That will be an unpopular idea for people who think there is life there.”

He says the timescale for “terraforming” Mars, or making it inhabitable for humans, is many thousands of years.

The simple motivation for his idea is that he believes that “life is good”.

Duncan says bacteria contains seven percent of DNA that humans have.

So, in the same way that we have an interest in our fellow humans and our environments because we are related to those things, there should be a similar interest in spreading our related bacteria.

“If we insert bacterial life on Mars we would be ensuring our genes will continue. It sounds airy fairy but if could be a unifying thing for humans to do.”

He thinks the “ballyhoo” of sending humans to Mars needs to stop.

He hopes, instead, that the conversation can be shifted to sending other life into the Solar System. Currently all Mars missions have been sterile to avoid contaminating the planet. However, he believes soon we will start thinking the other way – about making sure that life does make its way there.

“But unless we start talking about it now then it won’t happen,” he says. “People think about keeping places pristine, I’m more interested in people than keeping Mars pristine.”

Duncan will speak to the Nelson Science Society on Thursday at 7.30pm at the Cawthron Institute about one of his side hobbies – the research of eclipses through history and how they have helped shape world events.