Planetary protection regulations stymieing Mars missions, says researchers

While NASA has been carrying out some extensive missions on Mars, looking for evidence of water and signs that the planet could have supported life, it has been required to follow strict requirements to prevent contamination. The idea behind this is that the introduction of microbes from Earth could harm the Martian planet, something researchers have spoken out against today.

The journal Nature Geoscience published a piece today on the topic, in which two researchers – Cornell University's Alberto Fairen and Washington State University's Dirk Schulze-Makuch – state that such planetary protection requirements are putting undue financial strain on these missions and hindering the overall progress that could be made.

Under the requirements, NASA must sterilize spacecraft before sending them to the planet, which was the case with its latest Mars rover, Curiosity. The rover had to undergo extensive, time-consuming, and expensive sterilization procedures in order to meet the 300,000 bacterial spores maximum limit. With this requirement, the parts of the rover that can transmit bacteria to Mars would be nearly stripped free of contaminants.

In some instances, the sterilization procedures must be even more extensive, depending on which part of the planet the spacecraft is destined for. One example given was NASA's Viking spacecraft that were used to search for life on Mars, a mission that cost $1 billion back in the 1970s. Of that total cost, an approximate 10-percent was dedicated just to sterilizing the equipment.

Said the researchers: "If Earth micro-organisms can thrive on Mars, they almost certainly already do; and if they cannot, the transfer of Earth life to Mars should be of no concern, as it would simply not survive. We cannot see how our current program of Mars exploration might pose any real threat to a possible Martian biosphere."