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If Curiosity finds water on Mars, it could be trouble

NASALouis SahagunLos Angeles Times

For all the hopes NASA has pinned on the rover it deposited on Mars last month, one wish has gone unspoken: Please don't find water.

Scientists don't believe they will. They chose the cold, dry equatorial landing site in Mars' Gale Crater for its geology, not its prospects for harboring water or ice, which exist elsewhere on the planet.

But if by chance the rover Curiosity does find H2O, a controversy that has simmered at NASA for nearly a year will burst into the open. Curiosity's drill bits may be contaminated with Earth microbes. If they are, and if those bits touch water, the organisms could survive.

The possible contamination of the drill bits occurred six months before the rover's launch last Nov. 26. The bits had been sterilized inside a box to be opened only after Curiosity landed on Mars.

But that changed after engineers grew concerned that a rough landing could damage the rover and the drill mechanism. They decided to open the box and mount one bit in the drill as a hedge to ensure success of one of the most promising scientific tools aboard Curiosity. The drill is to bore into rocks looking for clues that life could have existed on the planet. Even if a damaged mechanism couldn't load a drill bit, at least the rover would have one ready to go.

Under the agency's procedures, the box should not have been opened without knowledge of a NASA scientist who is responsible for guarding Mars against contamination from Earth. But Planetary Protection Officer Catharine Conley wasn't consulted.

"They shouldn't have done it without telling me," she said. "It is not responsible for us not to follow our own rules."

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-- Louis Sahagun, Los Angeles Times

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