The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is not joking with its resolve to keep Mars as clean as possible, and this even involved employing Dr. Catharine A. Conley in 2006, whose job title as a “Planetary Protection Officer” involved keeping contaminants away from Mars and other spatial bodies.
NASA is aware of the fact that billions of bacteria and other microbes have hitchhiked on spacecrafts and then made Mars their home; and the space agency fears that the microbes may not only have survived the cold, harsh conditions of Mars but perhaps certainly are thriving by now.
“If we’re going to look for life on Mars, it would be really kind of lame to bring Earth life and find that instead,” Dr. Conley said.
Now, the recent news that NASA’s Curiosity rover has detected traces of water on the Martian surface raises the need to keep germs and microbes away from these water sources to prevent their proliferation. To this end, NASA’s Opportunity and Curiosity might be prevented from reaching certain “special regions” so as not to transmit residual microbes.
Areas classified as special regions are craters, mountains, and canyons since they could harbor dark streaks known as recurrent slope lineae. To this end, Curiosity is prohibited from reaching these parts because of the possible microbes from Earth that may have survived on it.
Come to think of it, Dr. Conley revealed that about 20,000 to 40,000 heat-resistant bacterial spores could have been on Curiosity when it was launched, not counting the up to 1,000 microbes that were overlooked. Although the high ultraviolet radiation on Mars may have destroyed most of these bacteria, some may have failed to die and passed to the soil as the rover moved along.
“We’re treading new ground,” John M. Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for science, said of the discussions of Curiosity. “The issue of planetary protection has gone very much from one where we’re just trying to be careful to one that has very real, near-term consideration.”
Scientists are trying their best to sterilize spacecrafts before they take off for space, but some bacteria still manage to escape unhurt.
Yet some critics think there is little sense in trying to sanitize spacecrafts or bordering about planetary protection, given the fact that astronauts and ordinary people are planning to colonize Mars within a few decades – and they may arrive the red planet carrying billions of Earth microbes with them.