Science News

Curiosity may have contaminated Mars

Sat, 22nd Sep 2012

Part of the show Contamination from Curiosity and Beating Bad Memories

Scientists working on the Mars rover Opportunity are hoping that it doesn't find water on its exploration. This is very surprising as as one of the major goals of NASA's Mars exploration is to understand water on the Martian surface and possibly ultimately find some form of life there.

The problem is that there is a very large chance of finding life which isn't Martian. Lichens from Earth can survive exposure to the vacuum and radiation of space, and that some kinds of bacteria can live in the Martian atmosphere and environment. This raises the hopes for finding Martian life, but it also means that we have to be extremely careful to avoid contamination of Mars.

NASA have strict rules about sterilising anything which might touch the Martian surface, but 6 months before the mission launched, the box holding the rover's rock drill was opened to preload a drill bit, making the system more likely to work despite damage from vibrations in reentry. There wasn't time to resteralise the drills so there will probably be some bacterial spores inside.

The present situation is that the bacteria definitely won't be able to grow if they don't find water, so as long as Curiosity doesn't find water or ice it can carry on its mission. But if it does it won't be allowed to use its drill, severely reducing what it can learn from the rocks of Mars. Fortunately, the rover is in the equatorial part of Mars, where it is unlikely that water will be present.


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Six months wasn't enough time to re-sterilize the drills? Are you serious? And knowing ahead of time that this could cause problems and it wasn't address? Wow! And now we are crossing our fingers and praying that we don't find water, which would be a most exciting and remarkable discovery... That is kind of like hoping that you don't win the lottery because you stole the lottery ticket. Why even attempt it?

The movie Jurassic Park told us that life can and will find a way. I think there is a lot of truth to that. Even though there may not be water where we use the drill, what's to stop earth life from finding a way by riding the wind or lay dormant until water and life someday meet (maybe millions of years from now). If we are so truely concerned, why use the drills at all? If we knew about this possible contamination, why didn't we just scrub the mission and do it right?

Is "unlikely" good enough to guarantee that it's safe to continue drilling rocks without concern of contamination? I don't really think so. I think that if we already have done some drilling, then the damage is already done. Either get over it or start making plans to clean up the most difficult superfund site ever.

So if an asteroid were to strike the site where we have done drilling, what are the chances of bringing water to the surface or send spores (or whatever) into the atmosphere to drop at the poles where there might be water? Pretty good chances? Boogie, Tue, 25th Sep 2012

I realize they had a tight timeline for the launch, and I think had missed their first launch timeline.  But, I find it amazing that they chose to do actions that they knew could contaminate parts of the rover, and then did nothing about it.

I suppose that if we send people to Mars sometime in the next 50 years, this all will be a moot point.  It may be difficult to prevent some bacteria from escaping with living humans on the planet, especially if there is an effort to build a long-term colony. CliffordK, Tue, 25th Sep 2012

I agree totally. In fact, it may already be a moot point. Were previous missions any better at contamination control? If decontaminating the drill bit in this mission was laxed, what about decontamination measures in previous missions? To shed light on this and then go on to say that if water is found, we need to stop drilling rocks is kind of silly, if you ask me. Either don't use the drill at all or stay the course and collect as much data as possible. Boogie, Tue, 25th Sep 2012

If the primary concern is bits, then the more they use them in sterile conditions, the fewer viable spores that will be left. CliffordK, Tue, 25th Sep 2012

Headlines 20 years hence -- First manned Mars mission in trouble. Crew contracts Martian 'Flu. damocles, Tue, 25th Sep 2012

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