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?"