During the run up to the launch of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity on Nov. 26, a step in the “planetary protection” procedure wasn’t adhered to. The procedure’s key purpose is to make sure organic material from Earth doesn’t get transferred accidentally to another planet — in this case, Mars.
As reported by Space.com’s Leonard David, MSL project developers decided not to send a set of drill bits — attached to the rover’s exterior, ready to be used by the robotic arm’s drill — through a final ultra-cleanliness step before launch.
This deviation in protocol wasn’t communicated to NASA’s planetary protection officer Cassie Conley until it was too late. “(MSL project developers) didn’t submit the request for the deviation not to comply with their planetary protection plan until several months ago,” she said.
The deviation was made by project managers as they considered the risk to be very low — the rover wouldn’t be drilling anywhere near potentially life-harboring ice in Gale Crater, the region of Mars Curiosity will be exploring.
The plan was to complete the planetary protection procedure by sealing three spare drill bits inside a sterile box. The box would only be opened when Curiosity needed new drill bits on the Martian surface as its mission progressed.
However, during launch preparations, the box was opened and one drill bit was attached to the drill head. Also, according to Conley, all of the bits were tested for levels of biological contamination. The bits were then reattached and preparations continued, but the bits were not subjected to the final cleanliness protocols agreed upon.
It is worth noting that all launch preparations are done under extremely strict cleanliness controls and it was very unlikely that any kind of contamination made it onto the drill bits. But as Conley points out, this small breach in planetary protection protocol will serve as a lesson to future missions.
“I will certainly expect to have a lessons-learned report that will indicate how future projects will not have this same process issue,” she said. “I’m sure that the Mars exploration program doesn’t want to have a similar process issue in the future. We need to make sure we do it right.”
To ensure the Martian environment remains pristine and totally free of Earthly contamination, NASA abides by stringent controls. The consequences of not doing so could be dire.
The planetary protection officer not only enforces the correct protocols for contamination of terrestrial biology to other planets, but also vice versa. Although there is no precedent for life beyond Earth, no chances are taken.
In the case of missions to Mars, should hardy bacteria make it to the Red Planet’s surface, although the odds are vanishingly slim, terrestrial organics could contaminate soil samples, giving experiments false positives of life on Mars. Even worse, should there be indigenous life on Mars, any stowaway microbes from Earth could decimate microbial alien life.
Though this breach in MSL planetary protection protocol may sound like red tape — in reality, the MSL team made Curiosity the cleanest Mars surface mission to be launched since the 1970′s Viking missions, according to Conley — it’s actually a necessity to protect life and prevent life from getting a taxi ride to other worlds.
“It would have been better for them to check with me before they opened the box of bits to confirm that it was okay … rather than trying to ask for it afterwards,” she said. “In this case it was fine. But for future missions we want to make sure that they ask beforehand.”
Image: MSL analyzing a Martian rock (NASA)