Her Job is To Keep Mars Clean

Catharine A. Conley, a NASA planetary protection officer. PHOTO: Paul E. Alers/NASA

Catharine A. Conley, a NASA planetary protection officer. PHOTO: Paul E. Alers/NASA

You’ve heard of a myriad job profiles, but what do you think are the responsibilities of a planetary protection officer? This officer knows, and all her efforts are now focused on keeping micro-organisms and spores from Earth away from Mars.

At the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Catharine A. Conley has a lofty job title: planetary protection officer. But with no extraterrestrial invasions on the horizon, Dr. Conley’s job is not so much protecting Earth from aliens as protecting other planets from Earth. Mars, in particular. “If we’re going to look for life on Mars, it would be really kind of lame to bring Earth life and find that instead,” Dr. Conley said.

With the news last week that scientists had identified areas of flowing water on the Martian surface— some possibly reachable by NASA’s Curiosity rover — that concern has taken on new urgency.

Thousands, millions, sometimes many times more, bacteria travel across the solar system on spacecraft. Earth has been invading Mars since November 1971, when the Soviet Mars 2 lander crashed. Certainly life exists on Mars today — the microbes that have hitchhiked from Earth. Even in the harsh environs of Mars — cold, dry, bombarded by ultraviolet light — it takes many years for all of them to be killed off.

The concern is that some of them might not only survive but thrive.

Because of the residual microbes, NASA’s Opportunity and Curiosity rovers are prohibited from visiting what are known as “special regions” — places that Earth bacteria might happily call home. (InSight, NASA’s next Mars lander, to be launched in March, and the next rover, to be launched in 2020, will also not be sterilized. In considering landing sites for the 2020 rover, NASA has crossed off those in special regions.)

The thinking is that some Earth microbes have been jostled to the surface of the inhospitable parts of Mars, but they would remain dormant and not proliferate.

“So far, Mars is still pretty clean,” Dr. Conley said.

Areas treated as special regions include the periodic dark streaks known as recurrent slope lineae — R.S.L.s for short — spotted on the sides of craters, canyons and mountains. Scientists last week said they were generated by the percolating of liquid water, one of the essentials for life.

Read more here.

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