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
- MSHP Workshop 1 handout
- MSHP Workshop 1 letter
- MSHP Workshop 1 Notes
- MSHP Workshop 1 report
- MSHP Workshop 1 report slides
- MSHP Workshop 1 self scan
- MSHP Workshop 2 agenda
- MSHP Workshop 2 agenda2
- MSHP Workshop 2 handout
- MSHP Workshop 2 letter
- MSHP Workshop 2 letter2
- MSHP Workshop 2 Notes
- MSHP Workshop 2.invite
- MSHP Workshop 3
- MSHP Workshop 4
- Report-Biological Containment of Mars
- Report-Comprehensive Protocol for Lunas Sampling Lab
- Report-Effect of sterilization
- Report-Mars Sample Return
- Report-Size limits very small microbes
- MSHP Fax 2-28-2000
- MSHP Letter 3-9-2000
- MSHP RummelLetter 8-26-02
UPDATE 9/13 - some more stories on this
- Scientists fear Curiosity rover drill bits could contaminate Mars
- Hey, Curiosity scientists, didn't you see 'Alien'?
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
@phylogenomics Opening bit box has no scientific consequences, @marscuriosity not sterile. Only matters if we drilled ice & none in Gale— Dawn Sumner (@sumnerd) September 13, 2012
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