NASA: Admits Contaminating Mars…the question is it still in existence? Is it humanly possible to visit a planet and leave no trace? Can NASA or anyone fully decontaminate rovers, and all the instruments and equipment on it? The answer is “no” based on the testing that has been done.
Scientists worry about Earth bacteria on Mars for two reasons. One if there is life on Mars, our Earth bacteria may serve as an invasive species, killing off or out-competing the natives. The second is that it could fool scientists into thinking that life exists on Mars when it didn’t exist before we introduced it. Needless to say it would spoil a “discovery”!
Would we like it if an alien species contaminated our planet with their microbial species? What if it had dire consequences? Like wiping out plant life or the human race? I think we would absolutely go insane. Like we do when foreign ships transport alien species via ship ballast water into our waters which is a proven mechanism for assisting invasion of non-native species into a new environment.
“We know there’s life on Mars because we sent it there,” said John Grunsfeld, a science director at NASA, during a press conference with reporters in September 2015. Grunsfeld was kidding, a little bit, but also acknowledged that on of the big problems that comes when humans visit the moon, Mars or anywhere. “We’re being very careful that we don’t send a spacecraft to Mars with the intention of detecting Martian life—and find out that we detected the Earth life that we took with us,” Grunsfeld said. “That’s tough to do.”
Stephanie Smith, a microbiologist at the University of Idaho in Moscow says that that if we undertake future missions to find life on Mars we could very find bacteria that evolved on earth and was introduced by Curiosity to the planet in the form of bacterial stowaways. Her team “swabbed” Curiosity and found more than 60 microbial species. Curiosity, of course, is a car-sized robotic rover exploring Gale Crater on Mars as part of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission (MSL). Curiosity was launched from Cape Canaveral on November 26, 2011, at 15:02 UTC aboard the MSL spacecraft and landed on Aeolis Palus in Gale Crater on Mars on August 6, 2012. The Bradbury Landing site was less than 1.5 miles from the center of the rover’s touchdown target after a 350,000,000 mile journey.
Before Curiosity landed in August 2012 on the red planet, prior to launch Smith found bacteria that withstood spacecraft cleaning methods before take off – which means it left earth with microbial species. That’s despite the fact that NASA spacecraft get disinfected about 10 to 30 times before they launch, says Stephanie Smith. But those decontamination sessions can’t catch everything. As she and her colleagues analyzed swabs that were taken from the surface of the Curiosity rover after cleaning and prior to launch. She presented the results to the American Society for Microbiology in May 2014. “When we embarked on these studies there wasn’t anything known about the organisms in this collection,” says microbiologist Stephanie Smith.
Her study identified 377 strains found that a surprising number resist extreme temperatures and damage caused by ultraviolet-C radiation, the most potentially harmful type. The results, presented today at the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology, are a first step towards elucidating how certain bacteria might survive decontamination and space flight.
NASA even concedes it is not really if, but how long do they live? As one NASA scientist put it, “any bacteria that successfully hitchhike aboard the wheels of NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity in 2012 might manage to scratch out a brief existence on the Martian surface.”
Here is a passage from her abstract entitled Identification and Survival of Isolates Collected from the Mars Rover, Curiosity:
Organisms were collected during MSL’s planetary protection implementation campaign. Isolates were identified and characterized using standard culturing and molecular techniques. Results show that a 62% of the 377 organisms identified are related to members of the Bacillus genus although surprisingly, 31% belong to non-spore-forming genera. These isolates comprise 25 genera and 65 species. Data suggests that 19 of these organisms are able to reduce potential growth substrates, such as perchlorate and sulfate, found on Mars. Many isolates have shown resistance to desiccation (78%), and UVC radiation. Moreover, 94% of the isolates can grow in the presence of elevated salt conditions (≥10% NaCl) and 35% grow at low temperatures (4C). More strikingly, 11% of isolates could survive under multiple extreme conditions.
Her abstract makes it clear that “knowledge about the hardiest of organisms on the spacecraft and could benefit the development of cleaning and sterilization technologies to prevent forward contamination.”
This is a work in progress, but the need to avoid contamination seems obvious, doesn’t it? And one very good reason is that Scientists don’t want to contaminate other planets with Earth life forms, as it could make it appear that they have detected alien life when in reality they’re really only finding Earth-origin hitchhikers or related.