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Mars NASA

Curiosity Rover May Have Brought Dozens of Microbes To Mars 97

Posted by Unknown Lamer
from the spreading-life-probably-just-as-interesting dept.
bmahersciwriter (2955569) writes "Despite rigorous pre-flight cleaning, swabbing of the Curiosity Rover just prior to liftoff revealed some 377 strains of bacteria. 'In the lab, scientists exposed the microbes to desiccation, UV exposure, cold and pH extremes. Nearly 11% of the 377 strains survived more than one of these severe conditions. Thirty-one per cent of the resistant bacteria did not form tough, protective spore coats; the researchers suspect that they used other biochemical means of protection, such as metabolic changes.' While the risk of contaminating the red planet are unknown, knowing the types of strains that may have survived pre-flight cleaning may help rule out biological 'discoveries' if and when NASA carries out its plans to return a soil sample from Mars."
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Curiosity Rover May Have Brought Dozens of Microbes To Mars

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  • by mendax (114116) on Tuesday May 20, 2014 @03:11AM (#47044241)

    It has been speculated that life here on Earth came from space. And there has been speculation that this life may have come from Mars thanks to asteroid impacts ejecting material with enough energy to reach escape velocity, some of this material reaching the Earth in its early primordial history. Well, if this is the case, we're returning the favor.

    • by Zocalo (252965) on Tuesday May 20, 2014 @03:28AM (#47044281) Homepage
      Not just that, but by ignoring any bacteria that might have survived the trip from Earth to Mars aboard Curiosity (and presumably earlier probes all the way back to Viking) they could potentially be ruling out other strains of the same bacteria that may have made the trip by means such as impact ejecta. They are demonstrably up to the task in the lab, so potentially this could eliminate some of the most likely candidates for successful pan-spermia. If Mars is teaming with bacteria strain "foo" as a result of an earlier impact event, and "foo" just happens to have been detected on a Curiousity swab I hope there is also some plan to determine how likely it was that Curiousity was indeed responsible.
      • by mendax (114116) on Tuesday May 20, 2014 @03:52AM (#47044381)

        It just occurred to me that even if we were to find only bacteria whose ancestor's hitchhiked their way to Mars from Earth on one of our probes, that would be a remarkable find in itself. It would demonstrate that life could have existed on Mars at one time even if we don't find any native Martian bugs.

        • by buchner.johannes (1139593) on Tuesday May 20, 2014 @08:59AM (#47045405) Homepage Journal

          It just occurred to me that even if we were to find only bacteria whose ancestor's hitchhiked their way to Mars from Earth on one of our probes, that would be a remarkable find in itself. It would demonstrate that life could have existed on Mars at one time even if we don't find any native Martian bugs.

          A mars rover is encapsulated during travel, so bacteria do not experience UV radiation and solar wind they would on other bodies (meteoroids).

      • Not just that, but by ignoring any bacteria that might have survived the trip from Earth to Mars aboard Curiosity (and presumably earlier probes all the way back to Viking) they could potentially be ruling out other strains of the same bacteria that may have made the trip by means such as impact ejecta.

        You can always later on send new probes to another part of Mars that do not have these strains, and get a sample from there. Mars' conditions are not exactly to make these bacteria thrive globally.

    • by flyneye (84093) on Tuesday May 20, 2014 @07:03AM (#47044911) Homepage

      Did someone bother to send some food for the bacteria? Enough to sustain bacteria long enough for them to evolve the ability to eat non-organic material?
      No need to worry, the sky is not falling and Mars is not going to be overrun with Earth critters.

    • More specific, perhaps it came from marrs before the Martian atmosphere boiled off.
    • by gstoddart (321705)

      It has been speculated that life here on Earth came from space.

      Not to be pedantic (OK, to be pedantic), but everything on Earth came from space.

      Pretty much anything more complicated that hydrogen had to be created in a star which eventually went nova. Heck, even our water came from constant bombardment of comets and the like.

      Despite what some people like to think, the Earth didn't just spring into existence fully formed.

      Me, I've always thought it highly unlikely we're the only things to slither out of the

  • ...we're screwed

  • by savuporo (658486) on Tuesday May 20, 2014 @03:22AM (#47044267)

    First properly documented interplanetary flight sent by us, with biological specimens on board ! Pity we didnt measure the effect of zero-g or deep space radiation on these.

    Next up, amoebas and molluscs to mars ! With the current pace, maybe in next couple thousand years we'll send rhesus monkeys at some point.

    • Re:Achievement (Score:5, Informative)

      by Strider- (39683) on Tuesday May 20, 2014 @03:48AM (#47044357)

      First properly documented interplanetary flight sent by us, with biological specimens on board ! Pity we didnt measure the effect of zero-g or deep space radiation on these.

      It's actually assumed that every probe that is sent will have some form of bacteria and so forth on it; life is just so pervasive on this planet that it's impossible to perfectly sterilize everything. Instead, the goal is to strongly sterilize what's critical and exposed to the environment, and reduce the probability of accidental contamination to an acceptable level (currently defined to be in the neighbourhood of 1 in 10,000 chance).

      • Re:Achievement (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Brett Buck (811747) on Tuesday May 20, 2014 @10:53AM (#47046319)

        To add to this, also sterilize it to practical limits given danger to the flight hardware. Many of the early Ranger lunar-impact missions had hardware failures on the way, eventually strongly suspected to have been caused by damage due to heat-sterilization:

        http://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/n... [nasa.gov]

                  Once they backed off on the degree of sterilization, the rate of random failures dropped dramatically.

    • I don't know how well the two sample sets overlap; but there have definitely been experiments in earth orbit on the effects of zero gravity, radiation, and hard vacuum, in various combinations. Some organisms do surprisingly well.
  • by Dorianny (1847922) on Tuesday May 20, 2014 @03:24AM (#47044269) Journal
    Why isn't anyone proposing a experiment where we send extremophile bacteria we believe can survive on mars and find out if in fact they can survive or perhaps even thrive under the harsh martian conditions. This would have huge implications for our search for extra terrestrial life, it would mean that its very likely mars already harbors life from earth that hitchhiked on a meteorite and even more importantly it would mean that life as we know it, needs goldilocks planet conditions only for so long as it takes to develop the genetic tool-set to deal with extreme environments, from where its than able to go on an colonize planets we currently believe are inhospitable to life as we know it.
    • by Stardner (3660081)
      Mars Terraforming Project - Stage 1: Culture vast quantities of methanogens to warm the red planet with an organic haze. :)
      • by biodata (1981610)
        I'm not an expert on this by any means but I think the problem might be available Nitrogen, given what I saw from the atmospheric and regolith analyses that came out of the early Curiosity experiments. Perhaps someone who knows what they are talking about would care to comment?
    • If we introduce life it becomes much harder to say any life we find in the future isn't just contamination we brought with us.

      • If we introduce life it becomes much harder to say any life we find in the future isn't just contamination we brought with us.

        If it's shooting laser guns at us, chances are it was already there.

      • I guess the point is that if these organisms can survive the trip to Mars then we will never be certain if a discovered species on Mars came from us or developed independently. Genetic analysis could help but there still might be uncertainty. Now we know there is a non-zero chance of survival maybe we should stop worrying about contamination and get on with some terra-forming, so that the planet might be more hospitable by the time we are able to send people there.
    • by physicsphairy (720718) on Tuesday May 20, 2014 @07:59AM (#47045093) Homepage

      It's easy enough to simulate martian conditions here on earth, which is a more controlled and far cheaper means of experiment. It was found that certain lichen can do quite well [liebertpub.com], although note that this was on the assumption that water would be available.

      It would probably be best not to introduce earth microbes before a full terraforming plan is developed. The population might explode, consume all the available micronutrients, and then die off. Or it might become a pest, inhibiting the release of other, more useful microorganisms later on. And it might obscure any extant martian microorganisms or micoorganism fossils when those could provide a far better template than earth-based extremophiles. We'll want something robust and sustainable, a planned ecosystem genetically engineered to produce all the right byproducts and which changes in concert with the alterations to atmosphere, global temperature, and soil composition without any unintended extinction events.

  • Oh great ! (Score:2, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward

    Not even living there yet but we already shat everywhere on the carpet !

  • by Strider- (39683) on Tuesday May 20, 2014 @03:30AM (#47044291)

    JPL actually has a highly detailed document on "Policy for Planetary Protection" that details the standards to which a probe must be sanitized to before being sent on its mission. The level of cleanliness depends on the intended mission and target; orbiters have a lesser standard than landers, for example. The policy also takes into account different parts of the spacecraft; the inside of the box containing the CPU and so forth isn't cleaned to as high of a standard as the wheels, experiments and so forth that are directly exposed to the environment. In the case of the Galileo probe, it was deliberately crashed into Jupiter at the end of mission in order to ensure it would never impact Europa, as it had not been cleaned to that high of a standard. Cassini will face a parallel fate, of crashing into Saturn to prevent a collision with Enceladus and/or Titan.

    The key part here is that when you are looking for life (or might be looking for life in the near future) you don't want to discover that the life is found is something that you brought from earth yourself, or was brought by another space probe.

    • Do the staff refer to this policy as "The Prime Directive" informally?
    • by mapkinase (958129)

      To begin with, the article is speculation:

      >although no one knows for sure whether the bacteria survived the inter-planetary ride.

      > The key part here is that when you are looking for life

      You should be able to tell if the life is extra-terrestrial without arbitrarily excluding possibility of contamination.

      For example, I do not need a whole history of specimen to determine if genome sequence was contaminated. There are computer programs that will do that fairly easily.

  • by captainpanic (1173915) on Tuesday May 20, 2014 @03:30AM (#47044293)

    Terraforming has begun. With some luck, there were one or two microbes that can do photosynthesis. Plenty of CO2 on Mars.
    Yes, it will take a really long time, but we had to start at some point, right? Good job, NASA.

    • You call that Terraforming? Hint: You sit right between the orbits of Venus and Mars.

      Venus has sulfuric acid clouds. Mars has a surface covered in iron oxide.
      3H2SO4 + Fe2O3 -> 3H2O + Fe2(SO4)3; Sulfuric acid + Iron Oxide = Water and Iron Sulfate salt.

      That's not "Terraforming", it's a simple riddle any sufficiently advanced species in your situation could solve if they needed a bit more elbow room.
      You solve this basic trans-atmospheric endeavor and you can move onto the next step towards solving the Fer

    • by Anonymous Coward

      No, actually not plenty of CO2 on Mars. The atmosphere on Mars is first and foremost thin.

    • by Sockatume (732728)

      You're forgetting that Mars has 0.6% the surface pressure of Earth, which is actually very little CO2 at all. Even Total Recall had the sense to show the Martian terraforming equipment cracking a reservour of water ice to produce the oxygen it would need.

      • True. The total pressure is much lower on Mars. However, the CO2 partial pressure is higher:

        On Earth, we have a total of 1 bar, and 0.04% of that is CO2. That means a CO2 partial pressure of 0.0004 bar CO2, or 0.4 mbar CO2.
        On Mars, there is a total of 6 mbar pressure, but 96% of that is CO2. That means a CO2 partial pressure of 0.0058 bar CO2, or 5.8 mbar CO2, almost 15 times as much CO2.

        The plants may lack everything else (they do need the other gases in the atmosphere, I know, and liquid water in the soil

        • by Sockatume (732728)

          That's plenty of CO2 if all you want to do is photosynthesise, but the whole point of terraforming is to get the atmosphere up to a reasonable partial pressure of oxygen. Whereas pre-photosynthetic Earth had bags of CO2, the amount on Mars has is not going to be sufficient.

  • angering the god of war is never good.
    • What's he going to do? Run back to Zeus and whine again till he gets sterilized?
      • by Jmc23 (2353706)
        You should learn the difference between romans and greeks.
        • Spindoctored state propaganda. Ignore that in mythology. It's where culture goes to die. Romans quickly became boring and predictable. Politics turned Set and Baal into their own enemies, while the Egyptians and a certain sect of pretentious self-hating Canaanites became boring and predictable. It's a pattern. When Christendom ate paganism, what did we get? Spindoctored state propaganda with a boring and predictable abortion as/of a culture.
    • What's he going to do, turn his back on his best customers?
  • Life found on Mars!

    Maybe in a billion years, when the sun has expanded a bit and mars is a bit warmer, gets an atmosphere somehow and honest to god martians are looking at the dead blue world and wondering if it ever harbored life.

  • Please tell me we didn't send microbes to the moon, too. Just think of the consequences.

    • Can't be worse than when we send doge there.

  • by Balinares (316703) on Tuesday May 20, 2014 @04:29AM (#47044487)

    Turns out we are the Great Ancients from a million years ago that came from the cosmos to seed life. Whatever species ends up evolving there will dig into their past with wonder and trepidation to discover who we were. And then they'll find out about Honey Boo Boo. Ah, to be a fly on the wall... :)

    • If these microbes ever evolve to something as intelligent as us humans, their archaeologists will have quite some explaining to do when they dig up the Curiosity rover.

      • by geekmux (1040042) on Tuesday May 20, 2014 @04:54AM (#47044565)

        If these microbes ever evolve to something as intelligent as us humans, their archaeologists will have quite some explaining to do when they dig up the Curiosity rover.

        Yes, I seem to recall a similar race standing about staring at these insanely accurate pyramid-shaped structures.

        You have a pretty extreme example by comparison there, too.

        We can't explain how rocks got stacked so precisely thousands of years later.

        Them finding Curiosity would be equal to us finding a 10,000-year old Tesla Roadster sitting in a monastery garage right next to the cold fusion fridge.

        • by Sique (173459)
          We actually can explain how rocks got stacket so precisely. Polishing a plane surface is a tedious act, yes. But you don't need any fancy equipment to do it, just much time at hand.
          • Polishing a plane surface is a tedious act, yes. But you don't need any fancy equipment to do it, just much time at hand.

            And, when you have thousands upon thousands of slaves working for you, man-hours dedicated to a project isn't a problem.

    • No way. With Earth's heavy, thick atmosphere, boiling-hot average temperature and lack of life-giving ultraviolet rays, life there would be impossible.
  • by gaiageek (1070870) on Tuesday May 20, 2014 @05:01AM (#47044585) Homepage
    So if humans ever do populate Mars, they'll face strains of bacteria which even NASA can't kill. Wouldn't this make an argument for not going to such extremes to try to rid such rovers of any and all bacteria?
    • by Bongo (13261)

      Just send the old people who managed to survive a stay in a British NHS hospital.

  • 'In another moment I had scrambled up the earthen rampart and stood upon its crest, and the interior of the redoubt was below me. A mighty space it was, with gigantic machines here and there within it, huge mounds of material and strange shelter places. And scattered about it, some in their overturned war-machines, some in the now rigid handling-machines, and a dozen of them stark and silent and laid in a row, were the Martians--dead!--slain by the putrefactive and disease bacteria against which their syste
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday May 20, 2014 @06:15AM (#47044779)

    There were some (only slightly) successful Soviet Mars landers. They were not sterilized at all.

    • Source please. Everything I'm seeing says the Soviet Mars landers were sterilized to prevent contamination.
  • It was a small step for a bacteria, but a giant leap for bugs.

  • SEED IT!!!!!!!
  • If native life on Mars is found, they will say: "But it was created here."

  • "Life finds a way"

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?... [youtube.com]

    No truer words were ever spoken

  • "All of this has happened before, and all of it will happen again." Though probably the first time it was the last-minute waste dump out from the departing ship . . .
  • ...it will be the descendants of these microbes that kill us. But still, we go. Uuuuu-laaaaaa!
  • If we were going to contaminate the Martians we should do it right and send them blankets laced with smallpox. Hey, it worked before.

  • by Squidlips (1206004) on Tuesday May 20, 2014 @01:22PM (#47048007)
    It is extremely unlikely that any bugs that made the passage from Earth to Mars on the rover will survive on the surface of Mars and propagate. The perchlorates in the soil are a super oxidizer that will gobble them up. The surface of Mars may be more hostile to life than space.
  • by Rix (54095)

    We should be sending samples there, to try to find one that can thrive. Once we do, spread it liberally over the surface.

  • The rovers were contaminated. Ok, but at least it was limited contamination, unlike what would happen if we sent people to mars. We really need to search the planet for life before we send people, the risks are too high otherwise. Risks: 1-Once you contaminate Mars finding life becomes orders of magnitude harder. 2-If you bring something back you might kill us all (we would have no biological defenses). 3-Moral values. Wiping out martian life by dumping our microbes onto them is Evil.
  • In my opinion, we should be _populating_ planets, not keeping them sterile. We can do worthwhile science, watching low level life forms adapt to martian life.

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