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Investigations of the Potential for Microorganisms Residing on Mars-Based Spacecraft to Inhabit Mars and Pose Planetary Protection Challenges

ID

University of Idaho/NASA Ames Research Center, Science Mission Directorate

Results from our studies have provided the basic beginnings of understanding microorganisms that reside on pre-launch spacecraft and their potential impact on space exploration of possible habitable worlds. The search for extraterrestrial life is bolstered by our long-standing quest to determine if we are alone in the universe or if there are other planetary bodies which may also support life. However, the search for life on these planetary bodies introduces another challenge; microbes from Earth hitch-hiking on the spacecraft. This is a challenge that must be addressed when exploring potentially habitable planetary bodies. Studies conducted at the University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho have begun to answer important questions regarding the microorganisms collected directly from the Mars Curiosity rover and Viking spacecraft landers prior to launch. What our research has shown is that the microorganisms remaining on the spacecraft, after numerous attempts to eradicate them, are very resistant to extreme environmental conditions. They are some of the hardiest of microorganisms, being able to survive desiccation for extended periods of time then grow again when conditions are favorable. These organisms grow after simulated exposure to the space environment, such as intense UV-C radiation and low temperatures, and can grow under extreme environmental conditions including elevated salt or pH. Many of these bacteria grow under anaerobic conditions using sources known to be available on Mars, such as sulfate, perchlorate, and iron, to conserve energy. Further studies will provide additional insight as to whether these organisms can truly inhabit other worlds, ways to mitigate their initial contamination of spacecraft, and provide additional knowledge as to the limits of life as we know it. Over the last year our research has been featured in Nature News, Popular Science and Discover Magazine, among other media outlets. Dr. Smith was also interviewed on CBC Radio’s Science show “Quirks and Quarks�.

Dr. Andrzej Paszczynski, Science PI, University of Idaho

www.nasa.gov/epscor/stimuli

Dr. David J. Smith, NASA Technical Monitor, Ames Research Center

NASA EPSCoR Stimuli 2014-15

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EPSCoR Stimuli 2014-15  

NASA Office of Education’s Aerospace Research & Career Development (ARCD) is pleased to release NASA EPSCoR Stimuli, a collection of univers...

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