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Image: Full-scale mockup of Russia's Phobos-Grunt.
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Full-scale mockup of Russia's Phobos-Grunt. Mission objectives are to collect samples of soil on Phobos, a satellite of Mars, and to bring the samples back to Earth to carry out comprehensive scientific research of the Martian system.
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updated 1/7/2009 12:00:05 PM ET 2009-01-07T17:00:05

Russia is pushing forward on a robotic mission to Mars dubbed Phobos-Grunt — now seemingly on a countdown clock that ticks away for an October launch.

If the project is on track and off the ground by that time, Phobos-Grunt would arrive at the red planet in August of next year.

The project also includes deployment of a Chinese sub-satellite -Yinghuo-1 meaning "Firefly-1" — that will gauge the Martian past in terms of how surface water on the red planet did a disappearing act.

Phobos-Grunt is intended also to cast an orbital eye on Mars too, but then plop down on Phobos — one of that planet's two moons, scrape up on-the-spot samples and then transport those extraterrestrial tidbits to Earth in July 2012. As it swoops by Earth, the spacecraft is to release a capsule containing all the samples gathered on Phobos, to land on Earth.

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But what caught my eye was another payload on this heady mission - detailed in a couple of recent articles — that Russia is also dispatching on the flight the "world's hardiest" or "toughest" organisms found here on Earth, sealed up in a bio-container for the Earth-to-Mars/Mars to Earth three year trek. The bio-module will provide 30 small tubes for individual microbe samples.

Turns out that The Planetary Society is at the root of this "hardy boys go to Mars" saga - dubbed LIFE, short for Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment.

LIFE is intended to help better understand the nature of life, its robustness, and its ability - or not - to move between planets. The journey will be a test of one facet of the "transpermia" hypothesis. That is, the possibility that life can voyage from planet to planet inside rocks blasted off one planetary surface by impact, to land on another planetary surface.

I guess what set off my buzzer was lobbing organisms toward Mars, on purpose, given that lots of effort - and money - is involved in preventing hitchhiking microbes from Earth making it to the red planet in the first place.

It is called forward contamination.

Under The Outer Space Treaty of 1967, planetary protection policies are in place to prevent cross contamination between planets - avoiding both forward contamination on outbound spacecraft, and back contamination of Earth upon return. For this mission, it's the possibility of forward contamination that's raises concerns.

International protocols
So I shot an email over to Lou Friedman, he's the Executive Director of The Planetary Society, asking him to allay concerns about forward contamination.

"I guess the most important thing I can say to 'allay concerns' is that ... us and the Russians with whom we are working with are committed to observing the international protocols and agreements concerning planetary protection," he told SPACE.com.

"The main point is the product of probabilities of this experiment even entering Mars, let alone breaking up and then dispersing organisms in a way that they could survive on Mars is incredibly small - orders of magnitude less than the minimum allowed in the international science protocols," Friedman advised.

As broached in The Planetary Society's Frequently Asked Questions about the mission: Is it likely that this experiment could contaminate Mars with life, thus confusing future searches for life on Mars?

"The short answer is that it is very unlikely, but we are doing a thorough analysis of the issue. We will fully comply with the COSPAR (Committee on Space Research of the International Council for Science) planetary protection guidelines aimed at preventing the contamination of Mars by introducing terrestrial life onto the surface of Mars."

Preliminary passenger list
On the other hand, there are some other aspects of this that still ring an alarm bell in some quarters. For example:

Since it's a Russian launch vehicle, and not going to the surface of Mars per se, the concerns about planetary protection are less stringent. However, if an out-of-control spacecraft impacts on the planet, that would be bad. How would NASA respond if it were a U.S. launch vehicle with the same experiment? Okay, let's hope they are successful. Even so, if the experimental organisms make it back alive, it says that organisms are hardy (there's a high duh factor!) and if they die, there's no way to interpret the data in a useful way.

The Phobos-Grunt mission intends to meet orbital lifetime requirements, so by COSPAR policy there is no official limit on the number of organisms the spacecraft may carry. However, I've been advised that neither the COSPAR nor NASA planetary protection officials think that sending organisms so close to Mars is a good idea, given the trouble the U.S. normally goes through to ensure that Mars spacecraft are very clean.

A critical question involves the specific organisms that will be transported. Both The Planetary Society and the Russian National Academy have been advised to send only "pure cultures of organisms" that could not possibly survive on Mars, selected so that they would pose a minimal contamination hazard. By the way, most organisms relevant to human exploration, such as well-studied human commensal microbes and food organisms, meet this criterion. A preliminary passenger list on the LIFE experiment included a section of tundra taken from the Russian far north.

Of all locations on Earth that could possibly contain organisms capable of adapting to Martian conditions, this is one of the most likely. However, The Planetary Society Web site indicates that the final passenger list is not yet in place. But the description still states that "a natural soil colony of microbes" will be included. What's up here, and what's really up and going? At the end of the day, will the Russians comply with the spirit or letter of the COSPAR Planetary Protection Policy when analyzing the potential for harm? And in not doing this, would they undercut COSPAR policy?

Native tundra samples

I also contacted Catharine Conley, the acting Planetary Protection Officer at NASA Headquarters about this mission.

"The Phobos-Grunt mission intends to meet orbital lifetime requirements, so by COSPAR policy there is no official limit on the number of organisms the spacecraft may carry," Conley advised. Sending pure cultures of organisms that could not possibly survive on Mars, she added, would pose a minimal contamination hazard, and this includes most organisms relevant to human exploration. 

"However, I am uncomfortable with sending native tundra samples so close to Mars, because this is a location on Earth that could possibly contain organisms capable of adapting to Martian conditions," and to do so "seems ill-advised," Conley told SPACE.com.

For another sanity check, I asked John Rummel, Director of the Institute for Coastal Science & Policy at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina for his thoughts. He's also COSPAR Planetary Protection Panel Chair.

"The Planetary Society, as a public space advocacy group, is looking for a publicly noticeable way to demonstrate that live organisms can make the journey from Earth to Mars and return. Scientifically, however, I think that the hypothesis has already been sufficiently supported by previous work on Earth and in near-Earth space," Rummel told SPACE.com.

"As the COSPAR Planetary Protection Panel Chair, I would judge that the threat of contaminating Mars is negligible - but I would emphasize that the Russian Academy of Sciences is the organization that should be making that determination for a Russian-launched payload, judging both the potential for contaminating Mars and the safety of returning samples of Phobos to Earth."

So space fans: Is the Phobos-Grunt mission something to groan about?

More on  Mars Space exploration

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