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How Sterile Do Mars Spacecraft Really Have To Be?

Two scientists argue that if NASA could get over its fear of contaminating other planets with homegrown microbes, it could save a significant amount of money on its exploration missions.

What’s the Latest Development?

In a paper published recently in Nature Geoscience, scientists Dirk Schulze-Makuch and Alberto Fairén argue that the “planetary protection” sterilization procedures currently in place for all Mars-bound spacecraft are a waste of money. They use NASA’s Viking missions as an example: Of the US$1 billion spent, over 10 percent went towards ensuring that no Earth-grown microbes hitched a ride, funds that could have gone towards another low-budget mission. In addition, the procedures are a waste of time: “Either Earth life cannot survive on Mars, in which case there is no fear of it contaminating any existing biospheres. Or it can survive, and therefore it is already thriving there.” Organisms may also have gotten there on their own by traveling on board a meteorite.

What’s the Big Idea?

NASA planetary protection officer Catherine Conley says the rules against unnecessary forward contamination exist “to help keep us from suffering the consequences of our own ignorance.” That includes the effort wasted on false detections of life as well as the larger consequences of altering any yet-to-be-found ecosystems. She also says that the budget slice used for the procedures has grown smaller in recent years, thanks to new technology. The Curiosity rover’s $2.5 billion cost included less than $10 million for planetary protection.

Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Read it at New Scientist


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