If there are microbes out there, we had better think hard about how to prevent bringing them back to Earth. If they are not out there, we had better not take any with us, or we will never know if life had appeared on places other than Earth or just hopped off a human astronaut.
Read two excellent articles on the topic: 1) Discover Magazine article “Protecting Mars From…Ourselves,” page 68, June 2019 Special Issue Apollo at 50 and 2) the eos.org article by Kimberly M.S. Cartier in July 2018, a report of the Space Studies Board of the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine.
In order to see what has been done recently, I searched for “Decontamination Requirements for Space Vehicles” and unearthed a June 2014 article from NASA.gov on “Decontamination System To Up Research on space Station” and a September 2012 article entitled “How NADSA Formed the Office of Planetary Protection (OPR) to “…avoid…harmful
contamination.” the UN treaty demands that “all steps necessary” to prevent and stop the spread of bacteria throughout the solar system.”
Discussions began. NASA’s Space Science Board called on several agencies to “assess the danger of back-contamination.” Rigid procedures and three weeks of quarantine of astronauts were implemented when Apollo11 splashed down. NASA had built the Mobile quarantine Facility on the USS Hornet and the Lunar Recovery Lab at Johnson Space Center. Twenty-one day isolation and all water and effluence, even air, were chemically
treated or incinerated.
In 2012 procedures were developed by the Committee on Space Research of the United Nation’s International Council on Science. Space missions were assigned to categories of space travel, from unlikely biological contamination to those carrying samples from a possible extraterrestrial host for life.
It was recognized that “spacecraft teem with bacteria” as found on Surveyor 3. Streptococcus lived aboard and survived three years on the moon. DNA can last even longer in space. Hence, sterilization procedures were recommended, including baking all components at 115 degrees C for 50 hours. The is seen as too much for modern components to withstand, so low-heat hydrogen peroxide was suggested. Class 100 clean rooms were used for construction, but more modern techniques and assessments of
risks are clearly needed.
That’s why the two recent articles mentioned above have suggested we look at the limits we should recognize and enforce. These were summarized in an eos.org article by Kimberly M.S. Cartier in July 2018 about the report of the Space Studies Board of the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine. It was beautifully illustrated with a
color image of Saturn’s moon Enceladus, showing blue streaks into which the “subglacial ocean (had) upwelled.”
As a student of microbiology, I appreciate this article for noting that we now know that tiny microbes can “survive extended time in the vacuum of space.” Water rises everywhere out there, and life can be supported in unlikely places. “NASA welcomes the release of the report.”
The conclusion? All “spacefaring” objects must be “thoroughly sterilized” before launch. If we don’t take this expensive precaution, we could get false positives for life out there. Without rigid precautions we could contaminate off-planet environments with our normal
bodily load of microbes. Or we might pick up any alien microbes and contaminate Earth.
Example: Curiosity on Mars. Good thing it couldn’t travel to where “water intermittently” was found flowing. US Government processes had not been updated to protect Mars and our solar system’s other ocean worlds. What about the Europa Clipper and Dragonfly? Have private spaceflight companies been included in required contamination procedures? So we can safely explore Europa, Enceladus and Titan some day and keep them safe from our microbes? Or keep us safe from their microbes? Do read the Discover Magazine article “Protecting Mars From…Ourselves,” page 68, June 2019 Special Issue Apollo at 50.
Author of The Archives of Varok
The View Beyond Earth (Book 1.)
The Webs of Varok (Book 2.)
Nautilus Silver Award 2013 YA
ForeWord IBPA finalist 2012 adult SF
The Alien Effect (Book 3.)
An Alien’s Quest (Book 4. Released Nov.21, 2016)
Excerpts, Synopses, Reviews, On Writing, Characters and More-
Reviews of significant books- www.goodreads.com/Cary_Neeper
How the Hen House Turns- www.ladailypost.com
Complexity, Bio, Bibliography and Links- caryneeper.com
Astrobiology- astronaut.com search:Who’s Out There