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Earth life headed for Mars moon

Russia to send 'world's hardiest' organisms on a 3-year round-trip mission

Image: Full-scale mockup of Russia's Phobos-Grunt.
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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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.

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."


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