According to NASA, by finding a way to understand how to stay safe amid such crises like the one we currently face, will help us advance in preparing to land on another planet.
The space agency’s robotic vehicles are already exploring Mars and paving the way to future manned missions to the Red Planet, and those projects will need a certain level of safety planning. Carrying Earth bacteria to the surface of other planets could contaminate the setting, or even appear as local life signs.
How NASA Prepares to Find Life on Mars
This is why COSPAR, the global Committee on Space Research, was set up in the first place. It was established in 1958 to further studies, exploration, and the peaceful use of space through international partnerships, as per the COSPAR mission statement. The agency also has a planetary protection policy (PDF) that makes sure the space companies protect the safety of Earth as well as of all the other exploration places.
“The Planetary Protection Requirements are an international NATO treaty, ratified by COSPAR,” said Moogega Cooper, Planetary Protection Lead Engineer for NASA’s Perseverance rover mission. “It’s an international policy that we have to abide by. Agencies around the world have to make sure their hardware and their spacecraft is clean enough.”
More precautions will be taken when crews will leave Earth in order to explore other worlds, such as Mars. NASA’s next-gen of Martian vehicle, known as Perseverance, will touch down on Mars in Jezero Crater in 2021, which was a lake that existed about 3.5 billion years ago.
The rover is then expected to gather samples and seal them for preservation until they are returned to Earth, probably sometime in the 2020s. Cooper’s job is to ensure that Mars doesn’t get contaminated with Earth bacteria when sending explorers there. His team take samples from the spacecraft and keep them in Petri dishes in order to see how clean the vehicle really is before it is launched.
“We look for these seeds that certain microbes can produce, and those are the things that would survive the journey in deep space, the harsh environments – that’s why we look for those on our Petri dishes every single day when we swab the spacecraft,” Cooper said.
Retrieving the Samples is a Challenge Down the Road
Parts of the rover that will actually touch the surface of the Red Planet are sterilized at 662 degrees Fahrenheit (350 degrees Celsius), together with the collection tubes for samples.
Perseverance will gather rock, mineral, and soil samples, which could contain microfossils from ancient organisms that may have existed in the lake. The data it acquires may be able to help researchers know if they’ve found signs of biological life on Mars.
“On the science side, we’re really thinking about new discoveries we can make on the surface and how [that] will inform what we learn when we get the samples back,” said Katie Stack Morgan, deputy project researcher for the rover at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “Our job is to find the best samples, collect and store them, and place them on the surface.”
The vehicle is expected to collect the samples, place them inside its chambers, and seal them in metal tubes that were created to survive in the Martial environment. The samples will then be left at specific sites so they can be taken from there later.
“We know that ancient Mars was habitable. But we haven’t yet been able to show that we have signs, real signs, of ancient life yet. And with our instrument suite, we think we can make real advances towards that on the surface,” Stack Morgan said.
As per the researcher, returning the samples is a difficult task awaiting, but NASA is already planning for it. The earliest expedition to retrieve the materials is scheduled for the 2026-2027.