Mankind has been speculating about life on Mars for over a century, from the days where we envisioned canals stretching across the red sands, to our modern search for microscopic life hiding in pockets of ice. While we’ve never found any little green men, life might finally have appeared on the surface of the red planet. Only, er, we might have accidentally shipped it there.
Space.com reports that NASA’s Curiosity rover, which launched on November 26th and is currently headed for Mars, may have been contaminated. The problem stems from a set of drill bits which were not sent through the final step of the program’s ultra-cleanliness procedures. The space program has extensive steps, called the “planetary protection protocols,” which are designed to prevent any Earth contaminants from reaching other planets via NASA spacecraft. Instead of keeping all the drill bits in a sterile box, which would have been opened by the rover once planetside, the NASA crew decided it was safe to go ahead and attach one of the bits to the rover’s drill head. The appropriate paperwork to approve the step was filed, but it didn’t reach NASA’s planetary protection officer (that’s one hell of a business card) until it was too late to fix it.
NASA points out that the decision to skip the final cleanliness step was made because the area where Curiosity is landing, the Gale Crater, does not have any potentially life-harboring ice within the depths to which the rover will be drilling (a meter below the surface). It’s also unlikely – albeit not impossible — that the bits were contaminated in the first place, since there are numerous sterilization steps prior to the final one. So we probably won’t have any Earth/Martian hybrids popping up to spray graffiti all over our rovers. Still, it just goes to show you, we can cross the interplanetary void and drop exploratory robots on alien soil…but we can’t escape the perils of bureaucracy.