Swabbing and Hoping: How NASA Keeps Germs From Colonizing Mars

The agency tries to keep humans from inadvertently populating other planets.

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A close-up shot of halophiles and methanogens, part of a hardy group of microbes called extremophiles, which thrive in the harshest environments on Earth. They can survive at below-freezing temperatures on Earth -- temperatures within the range of present-day Mars. (Maryland Astrobiology Consortium)

In 1967, the United States joined the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union in signing the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies. The agreement, more casually known as the "Outer Space Treaty," remains the closest thing the world has to "space law" -- and it stipulates, among other things, that as countries explore space they should avoid contaminating it with the microbial life of Earth. So while we may talk, with a mixture of fantasy and inevitability, about the colonization of other planets by humans, NASA takes great pains to avoid colonizing those bodies with life of a different variety: bacteria and spores that might hitchhike their way through the galaxy via American spacecraft. 

But keeping space free of earthly critters is a difficult task. In fact, it's an effectively impossible one. Curiosity, for example, was not completely sterile at its launch; rather, the rover was built to ensure that it would "carry a total of no more than 300,000 bacterial spores on any surface from which the spores could get into the Martian environment."

In that way, Curiosity is like the Mars landers that preceded it: just a tiny bit dirty. "When we clean these things, it's virtually impossible to get them completely, totally, 100 percent clean, without any organic material at all," says Dave Lavery, NASA's program executive for solar system exploration. Instead, he told me, the agency enforces "allowable limits" -- a kind of controlled biological chaos -- that aims to mitigate, rather than eliminate, microbial life on its vehicles. The margins here are extraordinarily slim: When you're talking about microorganisms, 300,000 across the entire spacecraft is actually a remarkably low number. (A human adult, after all, can play host to as many as 200 trillion microorganisms. Trillion, with a T.)

To keep the Mars Science Laboratory mission within its 300,0000-critter range, the technicians who built Curiosity regularly cleaned the rover's surfaces -- and those of the spacecraft that delivered it to Mars -- by wiping them with an alcohol solution. They baked the mechanical components that could tolerate high heats to kill the microbes that remained. And they sealed off Curiosity's core box, which contains its main computer and other key electronics, to prevent any traveling microbes from escaping its confines.

Here, pictured in the video below, is the clean room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory where Curiosity spent much of its pre-Martian existence. Note the bunny suits worn by the technicians, the better to ensure that human microbes wouldn't be transferred to NASA's now-rove-ready rover:

For its standard antibiotic regimen, Lavery told me, NASA has three main goals. First, of course, there's scientific accuracy -- since, for many of the agency's missions, the subtext if not the stated objective is to learn about the life that might exist beyond our atmosphere. "If we've taken Earth bugs with us," Lavery notes, "it defeats the entire purpose." Second, there's the Outer Space Treaty and the desire to be a good steward of space -- by avoiding contamination of the world beyond Earth's borders. Third, there's protecting Earth itself -- not just by preventing the passage of earthly life into space, but also by preventing any extraterrestrial life from coming back. (Hence those amazing photos of Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins hanging out in their decontamination module after completing the Apollo 11 mission.) 

Planetary protection has been one of the protocols that has unified NASA's missions since they started as missions in the first place. It's been a priority, Lavery notes, "since the very beginning of the space program." 

And yet sterilization, just like other NASA protocols, varies significantly by mission. The particulars are determined by two broad considerations: where a mission is going and what kind of spacecraft it's using to get there. There's an overall cleanliness standard that's in place for every mission, Lavery notes -- no earth bugs being the general goal -- but beyond that, there's a procedural spectrum NASA employs to determine its approach to decontamination. For vehicles like the Voyager crafts, wandering the void of space with no planetary destination in mind, standards can be (relatively) less stringent. For a lander like Curiosity, however -- or like the lunar modules that brought human life to the moon during the Apollo missions -- the sterilization standards are stricter. Because, harsh as those environments may be to earthly life, large or small, there's a far greater chance that life would find a way to survive in those environments than elsewhere. We already know, for example, about the space-surviving skills of the tardigrade. And just recently, scientists discovered a species of bacteria able to survive in a lava tube, gleaning energy from a chemical reaction with the iron from basalt rock -- precisely the kind of rock abundant on Mars.

Given all that, NASA ranks its missions into five general Planetary Protection categories:


So why not simply give every mission, by default, the highest cleanliness standard -- just to be safe? Because sterilization, like pretty much every protocol NASA goes through, isn't cheap. It's budgetary concerns, ultimately -- and resource concerns more generally -- that make decontamination a matter of calculated risk. 

Because of that, NASA's attempts at preventing cross-planet contamination have relied not just on antibiotic practices, but also on a near-universal feature of earthly life: its fragility. Catharine Conley, NASA's planetary protection officer, last year told Becca Rosen about the slim likelihood of biological commerce between Earth and Mars. While NASA has, Conley suspects, transported things like bacteria and pollen spores and other pieces of life inside its spacecraft, there's been a big caveat to the potential of contamination: "The surface conditions on Mars are pretty hostile to Earth life," Conley said. Which means that "it's not very likely that those organisms could actually reproduce, or even survive if they came off the spacecraft."

Curiosity relies on the same slim odds. And the Mars Science Laboratory Mission, with a roving lander as its vehicle, is ranked as a Category IV. There are subclasses within that category, Lavery points out, based on the different environments Curiosity will be exploring within Mars itself. Just like on Earth, some areas of Mars are more (potentially) hospitable to life than others. 

But protocols can also evolve. For Curiosity, the process of selecting exploration sites on Mars took place simultaneously with the process of its design -- meaning that a shift in one led to a shift in the other. The Mars Science Laboratory mission started out as a Category IVa -- the most stringent possible for landers and probes. ("We wanted to give ourselves as much leeway as we could," Lavery explains.) But when the Gale Crater was chosen as Curiosity's landing site, NASA engineers realized that the IVa classification was "a little bit of overkill," Lavery says, and downgraded the category -- since, given the crater's aridity, there was virtually no chance that Curiosity would encounter water or ice or anything else that could potentially foster life. 

At the same time, engineers at JPL began to rethink the strategy they'd built for the rover's drill bits. Growing increasingly concerned that a rough landing could damage the rover and the drill mechanism it would rely on so heavily to do much of its work on Mars, the engineers decided to open its previously sterilized box to add a new drill bit to Curiosity's suite -- thus ensuring  that, even if one got damaged, another would remain to carry out the mission. This switch-up, which wasn't communicated until later to NASA's planetary protection staff, is the subject of a recent Los Angeles Times article about the "rift" between microbiologists and engineers at the agency. 

The notion of a strong divide at NASA might have been a bit overblown, though. The changes made to Curiosity, being not immediately communicated to Conley, were indeed a bureaucratic "slip-up." But, beyond that, not only did the implemented changes follow NASA procedure, Lavery says; they were also standard practice -- part of the normal evolution of spacecraft design as it accounts for changes made to mission objectives. The mission changed; the vehicle changed along with it. And there's always that magic 300,000-critter standard. Before Curiosity was launched, "we were able to do an assay that said we were well under that number," Lavery says. "And we were good to go."

The question remains, though: What if Curiosity does find water? Probabilistically, that's unlikely. But Martian water -- or Martian ice -- is certainly not an impossibility. Particularly given the fact that Curiosity's work involves drilling into the Martian crust. If the rover does encounter water, any earth-borne microbes lingering on its drill might simply perish in the harsh temperatures and atmosphere of the Red Planet. On the other hand, though ... they could survive. 

NASA will deal with that possibility when -- and, more likely, if -- it comes. There are procedures for that circumstance, too, Lavery points out: procedures that would include NASA's mission operators, its scientists, and its planetary protection officers in a discussion about the best way to move forward. Procedures meant to avoid terraforming of the unintentional variety -- procedures meant to ensure that, as we explore Mars, we don't end up colonizing it, as well.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

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