Last week, I wrote about a hypothetical contamination of Mars and how NASA tries to prevent this. Now it seems this scenario actually could become reality.
There might be a problem with a drill bit. It was planned to sterilize all drill bits and keep them inside a box to be opened only after Curiosity’s touchdown on Mars. But engineers grew concerns that a rough landing could damage the drill mechanism. So they decided to open the box and mount one of them in the drill – just to make sure there’s at least one working bit ready for action.
This happened without consulting NASA’s planetary protection office, which tries to make sure that all parts of the spacecraft are properly sterilized before leaving Earth. So now NASA is facing the problem that microbes theoretically could propagate if they touch water or ice.
We shouldn’t be too concerned about this, says David Lavery, program executive for solar system exploration at NASA headquarters:
Water or ice near the surface in Gale Crater was not a significant probability. We weighed that against the risks of not having a bit mounted in the drill prior to launch, and the specter of not being able to drill any holes at all on Mars. [...] Of course, there is always a possibility that Mars will surprise us.
So this probably is not a big deal – as long as Curiosity does not find water or ice. We now have to hope to NOT find water on Mars. It sure would be great to see life on Mars, but certainly not bacteria we brought from Earth.