NASA Concerned With Earth Bacteria Infecting Mars on 2020 Mission

© REUTERS / Center for Disease ControlSpores from the Sterne strain of anthrax bacteria (Bacillus anthracis) are pictured in this handout scanning electron micrograph (SEM) obtained by Reuters May 28, 2015
Spores from the Sterne strain of anthrax bacteria (Bacillus anthracis) are pictured in this handout scanning electron micrograph (SEM) obtained by Reuters May 28, 2015 - Sputnik International
Planetary protection researchers from NASA have recently expressed concern about the lack of an antibacterial strategy for future missions to Mars. With human spacecraft exploring the solar system, how can we be sure we don’t contaminate alien worlds with Earth-born microbes?

Two prominent astrobiologists working on NASA’s Planetary Protection Subcommittee stressed that there is an urgent need to develop a strategy to insure that bacteria doesn’t travel from Earth to the cosmos.

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Of particular concern is the agency’s planned 2020 rover mission to Mars. With the goal of finding traces of ancient life, microbes from Earth could potentially contaminate Martian samples.

For Penelope Boston, co-founder of the National Cave and Karst Research Institute in New Mexico, the problem is a familiar one. She works with organisms which live in isolated caves on Earth, and there is a similar struggle to insure that those samples don’t interact with microbes from outside of the cave.

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Many of the strategies used for studying microbial life on Earth also overlap with extraterrestrial research.

“We need to make that overlap much bigger,” Boston said during the recent Astrobiology Science Conference, according to “We have to learn to combine these, and we have to do that very soon.”

Modern missions are even more susceptible to transporting bacteria than earlier Mars expeditions. The latest spacecraft contain complex, sensitive equipment which cannot be sterilized as thoroughly.

“Things have changed,” Boston said at the conference. “Now we have materials and electronics not meant to be cleaned in the way we need for planetary protection.”

Traditionally, a spacecraft is cleaned with the application of extremely high temperatures which destroy any Earth-born bacteria. NASA’s 1976 Viking lander, for example, was doused extensively with thermal heat.

“People were very confident that what they were doing was sampling Mars and not sampling Earth contamination,” John Rummel, of East Carolina University,said during the conference.

“It was a smart design by people who weren't afraid of thermal testing.”

But Viking’s less-sophisticated equipment was also less susceptible to heat damage.

Meanwhile, samples collected from NASA’s Curiosity Rover, currently on Mars, showed evidence of nitrates. Discovered last spring, that lends additional credence to the theory that the Red Planet may once have been a more habitable environment.

Those samples were collected from three different sites on Mars, all of which were part of a detour from Curiosity’s main mission.

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