Dead stowaways landed on Mars in August 2012. That's for certain. But due to their diminutive size - they were microbes - it was easy to miss them as NASA's Curiosity Mars rover touched down. Less certain, but much more consequential, is whether any Earth-based bacteria survived the trip with it.
Scientists in Boston recently presented research strongly suggesting that they might have.
Though long suspected, these results hold profound and costly consequences for upcoming NASA missions and, in the longer term, for how humans research, explore and perhaps even visit the Red Planet.
Since the dawn of the Space Age, scientists have worried about the potential for life forms from Earth to contaminate other worlds, thus skewing research into extraterrestrial life. That concern found its way into the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which required spacefaring nations to avoid "harmful contamination" of the moon and other celestial bodies. In turn, NASA established an Office of Planetary Protection to preserve the ability to study planets in their natural states (and, importantly, to protect Earth from space-based contamination).
Since then, all U.S. spacecraft bound for other planets have been thoroughly sterilized prior to launch. During the Viking missions to Mars in the 1970s, nearly 10 percent of the overall mission budget was spent on decontamination, according to one researcher. Nonetheless, nothing - especially a large space probe - can be sterilized completely. Thus, Mars Curiosity launched with 22 microbial spores per square meter - well within NASA's specifications.
The presumption was that none of those spores could survive the trip through interstellar space and the Martian atmosphere. Yet in advance of Curiosity's launch, researchers swabbed the craft and identified 377 organisms representing 65 species of bacteria, which they subsequently attempted to culture under conditions approximating what might be experienced during a trip to Mars, including extreme temperatures and extensive exposure to ultraviolet radiation. Of the cultured strains, the study concluded, "11 percent of isolates could survive under multiple extreme conditions."
Of course, this doesn't mean that the isolates survived; only that they could. Nevertheless, the result adds to a growing debate about whether or not sterilization measures are worth the considerable money spent on them. In 2013, for example, Nature published "The Overprotection of Mars," an extended argument for scaling back decontamination measures except for missions that specifically seek evidence of life, and thereby might be compromised by Earth-bound organisms. The money spent on such measures, the authors suggest, would be better spent on science, especially in light of evidence - including this week's news - that Earth-bound organisms may have already traveled to Mars (on meteorites, as well as other spacecraft).
Indeed, the harsh reality is that, despite the aspirations of some scientists, Mars is not and probably never will be a pristine wilderness reserve. Whenever humans finally reach the Martian surface, astronauts will carry with them months if not years' worth of microbial stowaways, and though it's possible to isolate some of that life via airlocks, it's pure fantasy to believe that a permanent Mars colony (Elon Musk claims that SpaceX is making progress toward building one) could maintain an eternal barrier between the Martian environment and visiting life forms. Sooner or later, something is going to seep out a cargo bay door.
That, however, is the speculative future. The present is more tangible, with NASA planning for future robotic visits to Mars, including a mission currently scheduled for 2020 that plans to bring back samples from the Red Planet. If only to preserve what - with any luck - should be untainted soil and rocks, NASA should continue to follow and improve decontamination procedures that are obviously far from perfect. The future of space may be filled with Earthlings, but for the sake of the science and what it might tell us, there's absolutely no reason to rush it.
Adam Minter is a columnist for Bloomberg View.