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Dirty Curiosity Rover Could Seed Mars With Earthly Bacteria

Curiosity is loaded with bacteria, and it could contaminate Mars

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If the Mars Curiosity rover could talk—above and beyond its highly entertaining Twitter account—it’s primary mantra right now would be: Please, please, “please don’t find water,” reports Louis Sahagun in the Los Angeles Times.

The entire focus of interplanetary exploration has been, for the most part, the quest to find water. Find water, find life; that’s the goal. So why the about-face? According to Sahagun, six months before Curiosity was scheduled to blast to the red planet, engineers worried about the ability of one of the most important instruments to survive takeoff and landing decided to hedge their bets and pre-install a drill bit in the rover’s drill. This decision, to open the sterilized drill on Earth, had consequences:

Curiosity’s drill bits may be contaminated with Earth microbes. If they are, and if those bits touch water, the organisms could survive.

Sahagun says that nearly a quarter million bacteria are estimated to have survived the Martian landing aboard Curiosity, though they all probably died off shortly thereafter. But, if some of these accidental astronauts were able to survive, the fear is that bringing them into contact with ice or water could allow them to thrive.

There are proponents of the largely fringe notion of panspermia, the idea that life on Earth may have actually started elsewhere, before being transported here on an asteroid or other interplanetary traveler. In this context, the idea of microbes travelling to Mars—a cosmic homecoming, potentially—has a certain irony. NASA’s planetary protection team certainly doesn’t see it that way, though:

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.”

 

More from Smithsonian.com:

Life on Mars? 
If Humans Are Ever Going to See Alien Life, Here’s Where It Will Happen

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About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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