Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Bugs in Space, Day 2: or, Stop Earthlings Now!

"Astronaut Gloves Tested for Biological Contamination" (March 25, 2009)

"Astronauts recently had their gloves swabbed in an early effort to develop planetary protection measures that prevent humans from accidentally contaminating the moon or Mars on future missions.

"The crew of space shuttle Discovery and the International Space Station used a new laboratory device to examine biological material on the gloves of astronauts servicing the space station. Such tests could help NASA understand and plan around how to prevent the spread of Earth life to other planets...."

It's sort of like "The Andromeda Strain" scenario, except in reverse. Instead of dealing with the a superbug from space, NASA is trying to reduce the chances that life on Mars or the moon didn't hitch a ride with astronauts. I think it makes good sense.

There's been a debate, ever since the first moon probes, about who's doing how good a job of sterilizing what. My guess is that it won't be over for years. Decades. Maybe never. Assuming that non-fossilized microbes are found on, say, Mars, and they're anything like what we grow here on Earth, there'll be the niggling suspicion that they arrived in an earlier probe, and adapted.

Unless they're really different, in which case our instruments might not pick them up - or register the critters as weird results that get written off as 'peculiar chemistry' back home. (A University of Giessen researcher has an intriguing explanation for why the Viking life experiment had weird results. Essentially, critters living in a very thin carbon dioxide atmosphere with only traces of water around might not have quite the same metabolism as the ones here at the bottom of Earth's moist nitrogen-oxygen mix. (March 5, 2009))

The article does a pretty good job of discussing how NASA's approaching the 'microbe stowaway' issue.
Looks like I'm in a rut, doesn't it? Two days in a row, micro-reviewing something about bugs in space: "They Sent Salmonella to the ISS - On Purpose" (August 25, 2009).
Other posts, about "Mars, Mostly."

Related posts, at

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