Addressing the insatiable curiosity of its builders, NASA’s roving Mars Science Laboratory has taken its first small “roll for mankind” in search of unraveling the clues to the habitability of Mars, past and present.
However, there is a small chance that Martian evolutionary history may be confused by the presence of hitchhiking microbes from Earth .
To date, a total of a dozen U.S., Soviet, and European spacecraft have landed or crashed on Mars. They were all sterilized before leaving Earth, but were the procedures good enough to wipe out every last stowaway Earth bug?
If we were to determine Mars has been biocontaminated by microscopic colonists from Earth, it would open a Pandora’s box of astrobiological issues. Did we “play God” by inadvertently seeding another world with life that mutated into a new type of organism that adapted to alien conditions?
There is reason to worry about biocontamation. In 2006 it was reported that a common soil bacterium, called Bacillus , remained healthy and viable on a spacecraft that had been sterilized with ultraviolet light…
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