Measures against contamination of ships sent to Mars can be relaxed

To ensure that Earth’s micro-organisms don’t hitchhike on ships launched to other worlds, many sanitation measures are taken. But a new report proposes that perhaps some of the protocols adopted to prevent such contamination on Mars could be relaxed.

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The report was produced from a planetary protection initiative with the participation of scientists. Instead of focusing on the possibility of terrestrial microorganisms traveling to the Red Planet, they focused their work on the possibility of these living beings establishing themselves in some way that ended up interfering with the search for life forms that, perhaps, might exist there.

If microscopic beings hitch a ride on the trip, they could be exterminated in several different ways, such as by temperature variations, lack of liquid water, intense ultraviolet radiation, among other conditions. Therefore, the authors propose that the measurements be updated based on the new knowledge we have acquired about the planet. “Changes in planetary protection policies must be considered in the context of how much science has learned about Mars in recent years,” wrote Amanda Hendrix, senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute and co-chair of the committee that produced the report.

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Members of Mars Quest Teams 1024 and Mars Helicopter with the Ingenuity helicopter, which had arrived in the “clean room” at ANSA (Image: Reproduction/NASA/JPL-Caltech)

She explains that, due to this broader knowledge that scientists have today, NASA you now have the opportunity to take more conscious and, in some cases, more permissive initiatives to reduce bioburden requirements for some missions. But even so, Hendrix still warns: “caution is still necessary, because we still have a lot to learn about Mars and about the survival of terrestrial life.” Despite the harsh conditions of the Martian environment, there are some regions where terrestrial life would feel as comfortable as they are on Earth.

For example, conditions below the surface, about 1 meter of depth, could create a good home for microorganisms to resist radiation, so planetary protection guides must continue to prevent some unwanted scenario from becoming reality. For this, ships venturing into caves or below the surface will continue to need extreme cleaning. In addition, sensitive regions of this type may need “safe areas” close by, as a way to prevent Earth beings from getting there by chance, such as by the action of the wind, for example.

Although some ships may not need such strict clean-up protocols, planetary protection standards shouldn’t be abandoned anytime soon. In the end, scientists still need to focus on the balance between exploring other worlds with greater ease and at the same time risking disaster. “Planetary protection measures should be focused on risk reduction, while preserving as much as possible the prospect that important scientific goals will be met,” said Joseph Alexander, space policy consultant and co-chair of the committee.


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