Sunday, June 8, 2008

Will the life found on Mars be the scuzz from somebody's shirt collar?

Here Eric Hand for Nature News explains:
“We will see organics, for sure, because we’re bringing them,” says Aaron Zent, a mission scientist from NASA’s Ames Research Center in California. Likely contaminants include skin flakes, dead microbes and volatile lubricants. “The problem with an instrument so sensitive is all you detect is your own schmutz,” says Zent.

[ ... ]

The $420 million Phoenix mission, by comparison, is low-budget, built from parts recycled from a cancelled mission — the Mars Surveyor Lander — that had been kept in a warehouse – and how much dust those parts gathered is a worry. “We’re doing a quick and dirty organic analysis,” says TEGA lead scientist William Boynton, of the University of Arizona in Tucson. “We’re kind of doing it on a shoestring.” ("'Dandruff' could contaminate Phoenix landing site" June 6, 2008)
and here Ewen Callaway weighs in for New Scientist, revealing that despite NASA's war on bacteria (to prevent spacecraft contaminating extraterrestrial environments),
Among the bacteria in the assembly room were bugs able to tolerate heat, cold, and salt. One particularly resilient bug called Bacillus pumilus can withstand doses of UV light that kill nearly all other life.

"This is the hardiest organism we have ever isolated," says Parag Vaishampayan, a microbiologist at JPL, who presented the findings this week at the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology in Boston, Massachusetts.

- "Could microbes on Phoenix survive on Mars?" (June 6, 2008)

Nice to know. If the space aliens ever invade, pumilus could be our secret weapon.

The hardihood of some bacteria can either demonstrate that life should be common in the universe or that after 4 billion years, bacteria have found a piece of just about every type of action on Earth - whether or not they have ever existed or ever could exist anywhere else.

We shall see.