Mars Mission Jeopardized By Germ Paranoia

A treaty nearly 50 years old that was ratified under President Lyndon Johnson and signed by some countries that no longer exist could severely curtail the Mars Curiosity mission. 

The Curiosity rover, which landed on the red planet on August 6, may be prohibited from using its drill due to concerns that a box of drill bits may have been contaminated by Earth microbes, reports the Los Angeles Times' Louis Sahagun. Engineers for the project apparently departed from procedure and ran afoul of something called a Planetary Protection Officer: 

Under the agency's procedures, the box should not have been opened without knowledge of a NASA scientist who is responsible for guarding Mars against contamination from Earth. But Planetary Protection Officer Catharine Conley wasn't consulted.

"They shouldn't have done it without telling me," she said. "It is not responsible for us not to follow our own rules."

[…]

The box containing the bits was unsealed in a near-sterile environment, said [NASA Program Executive for Solar System Exploration Dave Lavery]. Even so, the breach was enough to alter aspects of the mission and open a rift at NASA between engineers and planetary protection officials...

On Nov. 1, after learning that the drill bit box had been opened, Conley said she had the mission reclassified to one in which Curiosity could touch the surface of Mars "as long as there is no ice or water."

Conley's predecessor at NASA, John D. Rummel, a professor of biology at East Carolina University, said, partly in jest: "It will be a sad day for NASA if they do detect ice or water. That's because the Curiosity project will most likely be told, 'Gee, that's nice. Now turn around.'"

It's understandable that you don't want to introduce Earth-based life to Mars before you have a very high degree of certainty that the planet doesn't contain any life of its own. Otherwise you run the risk of contaminating your own research. 

Still, how does a Planetary Protection Officer get the authority to shut down such a costly and important part of this mission? Aren't there any Planetary Conquest or Pan-Galactic Colonization officers who can overrule Conley's decision? 

A surface mission to Mars is classed as a Category IV mission according to the Paris-based Committee on Space Research (COSPAR), which means there is a "possibility of contamination by Earth life." The 1967 Outer Space Treaty allows signatories to "pursue studies of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, and conduct exploration of them so as to avoid their harmful contamination." COSPAR policy separates the surface of Mars into "special" and non-special regions, depending on the probability that "liquid water is present or may occur." (The risk is that thirsty microorganisms might grow if they get a drink of Martian water.) 

Curiosity's landing site in Gale Crater is non-special. The drill can be used unless Curiosity encounters water, which is unlikely. The dream of sizable H2O deposits on Mars has been fading more or less steadily for several centuries. 

One piece of good news in Sahagun's article is that life forms from good ol' Planet Earth are unexpectedly hardy. In 2005, lichens on a Soyuz rocket survived days of full-vacuum, ultraviolet and cosmic radiation exposure. Last year a plant pathologist determined that a bacterium had pretty decent odds of survival on Mars. This leads me to think we're approaching this the wrong way. Testing genetic material in hostile environments is the only way to learn how to bioengineer plants, animals and humans for space exploration. The next probe we send to Mars should be made of used syringes collected from a dumpster at a Jimmy John's Gourmet Sandwich franchise during flu season.

Update: Fly me to the moon with Ron Bailey's classic "Does Mars Have Rights?"

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Lord Humungus||

    why am I reminded of a Retief novel?

  • Killazontherun||

    Our pal Benford once wrote a story about yeast molecules escaping on Mars when the first crew rigged up am unauthorized still.

    Planetary Protection Officer. The title does reek of lunacy even if it does have an actual function.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    DON'T JOKE ABOUT MARTIAN BIGFOOT. Don't ever.

  • Almanian's Evil Twin||

    The first rule of Martian Bigfoot is...

  • Brandybuck||

    Nonsense! Bigfoot is a gentle creature. Misunderstood and gentle.

  • ||

    'Cause he might rape the first astronauts to land there?

  • Brett L||

    So he's one of the Green Martians from Barsoom? Or maybe a Black?

  • Fluffy||

    If I was an evil billionaire, I'd set up a Mars program for the specific purpose of genetically engineering Mars-compatible organisms and shooting them at the Martian poles.

    If we listen to the scientists, we'll never get off this rock because they'll be too obsessed with trying to study ever-more-irrelevant minutiae to concentrate on what should be the real goal.

    So I'd just spoil their pristine environment for them and then say, "Well, it's wrecked now anyway. I guess we should just get off our asses and go, then, instead of tying one hand behind our backs so we can try to find out just how dead a rock we're dealing with."

  • ||

    Exactly. The most interesting thing we could possibly do would be to introduce organisms to Mars and see if any survive or even flourish. Who gives a shit if there is nascent life there? It obviously isn't doing very well. Time to kick it up a notch. BAM

  • albo||

    Think of it as evolution in action. If Mars germs can't compete, eff 'em--the big dog is here to take over.

    We'll need that rock someday. Venus would be much harder to terraform.

  • ||

    Well, maybe. Venus has a lot more atmosphere, even if it's fucked up and poisonous, and the mass to retain it. It might prove a difficult, but better, place to terraform because you're actually starting with an atmosphere.

    Of course, terraforming is a complete pipe dream, as cool as it is.

  • albo||

    Betcha if humans are still around in 5,000 years Mars will be close to Earthlike.

    Once we get to the Kuiper belt and can start diverting some comets, it could only take a few hundred years to put an atmosphere there.

    /hard SF optimist

  • Pro Libertate||

    I'm terraforming the Moon. I mean, right now.

  • alittlesense||

    Why aren't we discussing terraforming Uranus?

    Couldn't let the opportunity to make that joke go by....

  • ||

    Why aren't we discussing terraforming Uranus?

    Would you like Uranus to be contaminated with loads of Earth-spunk?

  • ||

    Mars has an atmosphere. Only problem is it is locked in the soil.

    What needs to happen is the core of Mars needs to be heated. With that all the gases trapped in the soil can be released.

    You will get better results from the kinetic force of shit hitting mars (the increased mass would also help) to bring up the heat.

  • ||

    COME ON COHAGEN GEEF DEEZ PEOPLE AIUH

  • Pro Libertate||

    It's a shame we can't control gravity. Our probes have revealed that both Enceladus and Europa have subsurface liquid water, with the heat coming from the tidal force of Jupiter.

    If we could somehow refire the core of Mars, we could also get some radiation shielding.

  • ||

    It's a shame we can't control gravity.

    If you paint (change its light absorption) an asteroid it can change its orbit...the solar winds and all that. Directing large objects from the Kupiter belt to collide with mars should not pose a huge problem.

    I am guessing the 5000 year estimate is a bit large.

    I am thinking under 200 years from today until mars is terraformed.

    Only thing stopping it would be governments.

  • Gray Ghost||

    If you paint (change its light absorption) an asteroid it can change its orbit...the solar winds and all that. Directing large objects from the Kupiter belt to collide with mars should not pose a huge problem.

    Might want to run those delta-V calculations again. Or at least really expand your timescale. I am not as sanguine as you that it can be done that easily.

    But if we need to do it, even if by using an Orion-type drive, we will.

  • ||

    Might want to run those delta-V calculations again.

    Opps. I somehow confused Kupiter Belt with the asteroid belt.

    yeah getting Kupiter belt objects to change their orbit to intersect Mars might take a "slight" bit more energy.

    Plus the time scale would wack it way out over the 5000 year horizon.

  • Loki||

    If you paint (change its light absorption) an asteroid it can change its orbit...the solar winds and all that.

    Most of the "solar wind" is charged particles such as Protons and Atomic nuclei produced in the core of the sun. I don't think painting an asteroid would have any effect on the amount momentum imparted by collisions with sub-atomic particles.

    If you paint the asteroid white you might get a slight increase in the change in momentum from light pressure, but light pressure is not what people are talking about when they talk about solar wind. Plus it's an incredibly small amount of momentum change even when compared to the amount from the charged particles. It really wouldn't be worth the effort to do it. If you want to change an asteroid's trajectory, just strap a bunch of rockets to it.

  • ||

    I don't think painting an asteroid would have any effect on the amount momentum imparted by collisions with sub-atomic particles.

    The idea would be only to move the object slightly to either influence or be influenced by other objects through their gravity until you get a proper elliptical orbit that would intersect mars.

    Yes it would take observational and number crunching skills beyond what we have today. But not insurmountable.

    One thing would be the paint would probably not be paint per say. More like a giant sheet that would be draped over the object that would have some morphing abilities; Change its color size, move about, the object ect. to allow more fine control

  • RFID||

    Guys, terraforming mars is really easy.

    increase atmosphere
    Smack Phobos into it
    increase gravity
    Smack Phobos into it
    release trapped water
    Smack Phobos into it
    give Mars a magnetic field
    Smack Phobos into it

    Basically, all of the early terraforming needs can be solved by giving Mars a hard smack with Phobos.

  • db||

    I agree. We humans are essentially Life's guiding hand in its quest to ejaculate all over the Universe. We better get strokin'.

  • Gray Ghost||

    The most interesting thing we could possibly do would be to introduce organisms to Mars and see if any survive or even flourish. Who gives a shit if there is nascent life there? It obviously isn't doing very well. Time to kick it up a notch. BAM

    Reminds me of yet another Charlie Stross story. One of the stranger universes I remember in Sci-Fi.

    The place where I'd really like to see such gene-tailored bacteria/algae/whatever, is Venus. Need to have them excrete carbon as graphite, as well as give Venus a whole lot more water, but it'd be interesting.

  • ||

    I haven't read that one. After I read the new Neal Asher novel I'll have to try that.

  • Gray Ghost||

    It's a novella. Not much time at all. Really notable for the weird setting more than anything else.

    But it does tie into your earlier comment.

  • BakedPenguin||

    There are some bacteria/algae/whatever that live near the edges of underwater volcanoes. With an ability to survive very high temperatures and large quantities of sulfur compounds, I'd say you should start there.

  • Gray Ghost||

    The studies I'd heard of had the bugs floating, high in the Venusian atmosphere, eating CO2, excreting whatever, and storing the CO2 as a solid compound. The problem with storing it as CO3 is that when the bug dies and floats lower in the atmosphere, the CO3 just decomposes back to CO2, and you're right back where you started. I thought that having the bug store the carbon as graphite (which doesn't burn until 345 C, even in 100 percent O2, which is definitely not Venus's atmosphere) would help get around that.

    I suppose you could knit the mother of all sunshades and try to help lower the temperature that way. Then you've got to get the bugs to Venus, ensure they propagate, divert comets to raise the H2O content. Probably just easier to develop Von Neumann machines and be done with it.

    WAAAY past our level of current technology, of course.

  • ||

    Why not floating organisms that convert Co2 to O2 and use the C for the actual organism like a giant blimp?

    Could even design the organism to stay afloat after it dies leaving a buoyant shell.

  • ||

    Yes to knocking Mars up with Earth-spawn.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    By evil billionaire, you mean the Chinese space program, of course.

  • Almanian's Evil Twin||

    I believe he was referring to The Kochtopus™

  • Killazontherun||

    If we listen to the scientists, we'll never get off this rock because they'll be too obsessed with trying to study ever-more-irrelevant minutiae to concentrate on what should be the real goal.

    Sentences like that make me love you long time. So right and so well written. Like the opposite of a New York Times editorial.

  • Paleo-ConAvenger||

    I happen to like this rock and think that its just fine, thank you very much..

  • SKR||

    That's great and completely irrelevant.

  • CE||

    But an evil billionaire could just build his own Mars base/lair, complete with an orbiting "laser" to shoot down any incoming spacecraft he doesn't want to land, making him the new de facto Planetary Protection Officer.

  • CE||

    If I were an evil billionaire, I'd set up a website designed to attract libertarians, then make them log in every few minutes if they want to comment on stories.

  • ||

    Totally agree.
    I think we should be trying to contaminate Mars with as much Earth life as possible, as soon as possible.

    Biological imperative.

  • Jennifer||

    If we listen to the scientists, we'll never get off this rock because they'll be too obsessed with trying to study ever-more-irrelevant minutiae to concentrate on what should be the real goal.

    Yeah, the space program would be a lot more successful if it didn't have so many friggin' scientists on the payroll.

  • Fluffy||

    Scientists /= engineers.

    Give me lots of engineers, but use scientists as consultants only.

    I would want the input of, say, geologists, if my engineers had to figure out how to build a probe that would plant microbes below the surface regolith. But if instead of letting them consult on practical matters, you let them run the project, they'll concentrate on how we can "examine Martian areological formations in a pristine and undisturbed state" so they can settle some argument about solar system formation or publish some paper.

    I don't care about any of that bunk. I want to get into space and onto Mars so people can live there, not so we can publish papers about it.

  • BarryD||

    Does Paul Krugman have a hard-on yet?

  • $park¥||

    The Prime Directive is not up for discussion here.

  • Killazontherun||

    Prime Directive can go spread germs on its balls with its own tongue.

  • Pro Libertate||

    And here's the basis for preventing the private sector from sending manned missions to Mars.

  • o3||

    do you know who else had planetary protection officers?

  • ||

    So that's why Jimmy John's stopped serving sprouts. Well, I'm less upset now.

  • ||

    The odds of the drill bits hosting one of the 10^7-10 known species of earth-native protists that could actually survive and reproduce in an environment we currently understand has no magnetosphere, 1/80th the atmosphere of earth, low oxygen, low nitrogen, and no ATP would be like getting struck by a meteor and winning the lottery on the same day. Hell, even those lichens in 2005 didn't produce spores. They just...didn't get obliterated.

  • sarcasmic||

    Don't! Get! Obliterated!

    Whatever happened to MXC anyway?

    Sinkers and floaters never gets old.

  • albo||

    Right you are, Ken.

  • Zeb||

    I think that archaea or bacteria would be more likely to survive than protists anyway.

  • ||

    *prokaryotes. sorry, too much microbiology this week.

  • ||

    still run into the same limitations. they could survive, maybe.. but would they reproduce? Not likely. You'd have to introduce some bacteria that's survived off phosphorous-rich rock, I'd think. And even of the known species that can do that, F2 only comes around after a couple hundred years.

  • A Serious Man||

    It's understandable that you don't want to introduce Earth-based life to Mars before you have a very high degree of certainty that the planet doesn't contain any life of its own. Otherwise you run the risk of contaminating your own research.

    Not anymore, now we can do both at the same time! According to myth, the Earth was created in six days. Now, watch out! Here comes Genesis! We'll do it for you in six minutes!

  • ||

    Really, ASM, you must learn to govern your passions; they will be your undoing.

  • A Serious Man||

    Logic? My God, the man's talking about logic! We're talking about Martian Armageddon!

  • ||

    Don't have kittens, Genesis is going to work. You'll be remembered in one breath with Newton, Einstein, Surak...

  • Killazontherun||

    We all went over mom's for Labor Day. She showed off these solar powered ran toy plants. I yelped, 'what God invents, Man perfects!' with my best Charleston Heston impression.

  • Killazontherun||

    What God creates was the actual quote.

  • Brandybuck||

    Mars allowed is not! Is planet forbidden!

  • A Serious Man||

    So is it not possible to quarantine a certain area and study possibly nascent life while we explore the possibility of terraforming the rest of the planet? I do believe that within the next few centuries it could be feasible to warm the planet through global warming and make it more suitable for complex life.

  • Tim Cavanaugh||

    I know the Science Is Settled and all, but are we sure we can even warm up this planet through global warming?

  • Almanian's Evil Twin||

    I certain we can't warm up this planet with Global Cooling.

    But the Global Warming? That's CRAZY! So crazy that it might...just...work...

  • ||

    That's not feasible at all..
    Generating ozone isn't the problem.. It's introducing enough mass to ensure that ozone doesn't escape that's the real problem.

  • ||

    Even if bacteria were introduced, how could they possibly travel far enough to consider other parts of the planet contaminated? I think the lack of wind, water, and ambulatory life pretty much quarantines any single-celled life.

  • Zeb||

    IF I recall correctly, there is lots of wind on Mars.

  • Brett L||

    Note that Mars receives less that half of solar energy of Earth. The only way to get any real temperature change is probably to drop enough comets on it to restart its vulcanism.

  • Loki||

    The only way to get any real temperature change is probably to drop enough comets on it to restart its vulcanism.

    That sounds quite logical...

  • CE||

    How are we going to get enough SUVs to Mars to do the trick?

  • GILMORE||

    Planetary Protection Officer...

    ....and yet, some argue that there aren't any more public sector jobs to be cut

  • GILMORE||

    Planetary Protection Officer...

    ....and yet, some argue that there aren't any more public sector jobs to be cut

  • Citizen Nothing||

    I've been reading The Case For Mars and it's persuaded me that colonizing Mars is a realistic goal for the not-too-distant future.

  • ||

    His "How to Live On Mars" is a fun read to, with an irreverent tone akin to "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress".

  • Auric Demonocles||

    I really enjoyed that book.

  • Paul.||

    Apropos of nothing, I'm so pissed at the Obama administration right now, I'm about ready to vote for Romney. That's how pissed.

  • Tim||

    One hundred years after HG Wells, we are invading Mars with machines, bugs and heat rays (the rover has a"LASER" beam).

  • ||

    It's a war of the worlds!

  • Almanian's Evil Twin||

    responsible for guarding Mars against contamination from Earth

    Like fucking space ships and rovers aren't "contamination", or don't collect some "contamination" as they travel there? Jesus fucking Christ already. What a bunch of buzz killers.

  • Marty Feldman's Eyes||

    There's a movie based on the probe contamination idea, a cute little semi-animated thing called "Mars". Basic premise is that life, introduced by a probe, evolves rapidly enough that by the time we notice it we think it must be "Martian". It's mostly a goofy movie though (Kinky Friedman is the US President!) , don't expect hard science fiction.

  • Almanian's Evil Twin||

    don't expect hard science fiction

    You said "hard"

  • ||

    At the end of the movie, Earth comes all over Mars's face.
    Thus contaminating it with our dirty, dirty, life.

  • Juice||

    Terraforming Mars is not feasible. The reasons it is like it is are the reasons terraforming won't work.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Perhaps on a geological time scale, yes. But if we could get it stable for a million years at a time, that's not so bad, and we could always maintain its habitability artificially the whole while.

  • Juice||

    Only a million?

    How long would it take to make it habitable for humans and other Earth life? Thousands of years? Would it stay like that for thousands or would it take constant maintenance?

  • Tim||

    This has got Federal Subsidy written all over it.

  • Pro Libertate||

    I guess the question is how stable it would be and how feasible maintenance would be.

  • CE||

    Hey, once I make Mars habitable to Earthlings, I'm SELLING the homesites.

  • Emmerson Biggins||

    If I were an eccentric Billionaire one definite candidate for my secret evil project would be:

    Hire a team of scientist to selectively-breed/genetically engineer bacteria that could live in a simulated martian environment. Then have a secret rocket project to actually ship the bacteria to Mars and treat it like the biggest petri dish in the solar system. Then sit back and watch when everybody gets confused about mars changing color.

    Theat would be awesome.

  • Emmerson Biggins||

    I just read Fluffy's comment.

    That funny. We even had the same keyword of "Billionaire".

  • ||

    This is exactly what I used to fantasize about as a teenager. Sadly, I have not yet made it to billionaire status. Obviously, I should have gone off and started an internet company instead of studying rocket science.

  • CE||

    A treaty over 200 years old that was ratified under President George Washington and signed by 13 countries that no longer exist could severely curtail the budget and policy plans of both President Obama and challenger Mitt Romney...

    Oh wait, for a minute there I forgot that the Constitution is a living document....

  • RPR2||

    none of this will matter if Sandy gets there.

  • db||

    That's one small squeeze for a woman...

    One giant dump for Mankind.

  • Tulpa Doom||

    I for one welcome our new Martian Tardigrade overlords.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement