Wednesday, September 12, 2012

NASA personnel ignore planetary protection guidelines and risk putting microbes on Mars

Many years ago I served on a NASA sponsored committee for a series of meetings about the handling of samples collected from Mars.  One of the key points of discussion at those meetings was "planetary protection".  The involved protecting Earth from possibly strange life forms that in theory could exist on Mars.  And it also involved protecting Mars from microbes and other life forms that could come from space ships/landers.  I even posted all the materials from these meetings a few weeks ago: Notes and materials from MARS Sample Handling Workshops 2000 ....

It is thus with great distress that I read an LA Times article that reveals that some of the people involved in launching Curiosity decided to ignore some of the planetary protection guidelines and made some hands on modifications that may have contaminated some of the drill bits on Curiosity with microbes from people.  See: If the Mars rover finds water, it could be H2 ... uh oh! - latimes.com.

The LA Times reports that some NASA personnel opened a box of drill bits that had been sterilized and - in clean but not sterile conditions - installed one of these drill bits in a drill on Curiosity prior to launch.  Apparently they were worried that a rough landing could prevent the bits from being installable in the drill which would make the drill not be of any use.  And they appear to have now risked the sterility of the entire operation by doing this.  Well crap.  That just plain sucks.  So much effort by "planetary protection officers" and others.  That effort might all go down the drain because of this.  I get that some times things seem urgent and that sure - if the drill was useless people would be pretty upset too.  But this seems to me to be a serious error in judgement.

In a small way I helped develop the guidelines that were put in place to protect Mars from human induced contamination.  And now that seems to have been a wasted effort as the guidelines were ignored.  Not good.

Note - for those interested I have posted links below to the documents from my days at the NASA Mars Sample Handling Workshops.  Most/all are public domain materials but not all are easy to find so I thought I would post them here.  Note – I have done no clean up of scans – will do so at some point. Enjoy


UPDATE 9/13 - some more stories on this
UPDATE 2: 9/13 - UC Davis Prof. Dawn Sumner (who is involved with the Curiosity mission) disputes notion that opening the drill bit box is an issue


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