Houston, we have a lawsuit. NASA is being sued by a Silicon Valley scientist for not digging deeper into his alleged "discovery" of possible life on Mars -- specifically, a curious object that appeared in a Mars rover photograph earlier this month, The Huffington Post reports.
To some (including NASA), it was just a rock; to others (including comedian Stephen Colbert), it was a "mystery doughnut." But to Dr. Rhawn Joseph of Santa Clara County, California, it was "a putative biological organism."
What is Joseph's lawsuit demanding, and is his request grounded in legal reality?
Writ of Mandamus
Joseph, an astrobiologist who's not employed by NASA, filed a writ of mandamus to try to compel NASA to thoroughly examine and investigate the alleged biological organism on Mars. Joseph's petition claims he "identified (and thus discovered)" the object.
Unlike a traditional lawsuit where a party seeks compensation from another party, a writ of mandamus is used to direct public officials to do something they should've done under the law. In this case, Joseph is asking NASA to perform its "public, scientific, and statutory duty" -- namely, to "thoroughly scientifically examine and investigate" the object he claims to have found.
In order to get the writ granted, Joseph must prove that he has a legal right to compel NASA to act, and that NASA didn't actually fulfill its official duties or that NASA officials abused their discretion. A writ will only be granted if there are no other available remedies.
Standing to Sue Over Mars?
Joseph claims in his petition that NASA didn't fulfill its legal duties because, among other things, its team failed to take enough high-resolution photos of the Martian object. He complains that the photos NASA released were "low resolution" and "appear to be slightly out-of-focus."
Still, based on those out-of-focus photos, Joseph claims he observed what he believes was evidence "that life on Mars may have been discovered." Joseph says he alerted many NASA officials -- including NASA Adminstrator Charles Bolden -- about his discovery by email and by phone, but they all ignored him.
How was Joseph able to make this discovery, and not NASA? "Simply because [NASA's Mars] rover team inexplicably failed to perform the basic demands of science, which is 're-search,' look again," Joseph's petition asserts. That, Joseph claims, is "recklessly negligent and bizarre."
One legal problem Joseph may encounter, however, is his potential lack of standing. To have standing to sue the federal government, a petitioner typically must have a personal stake in the outcome of the case.
To argue that he has standing, Joseph's petition says he's a taxpayer and his taxpayer dollars contributed to the Mars mission, so he's affected by how that money is used. However, case precedent suggests that "taxpayer standing" alone may not suffice in suits against the government.
The writ was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California and awaits its day in court. So stay tuned, earthlings.
- NASA Responds To Martian Life Lawsuit: It's Just A Rock (Popular Science)
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- Fla. Girl's 'Science Experiment' Blows Up Into Felony Charges (FindLaw's Legally Weird)