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NASA can’t use the Curiosity rover to examine water on Mars because of contamination fears

Matthew Dunn

NASA proudly announced earlier this week that it had uncovered the strongest evidence yet that liquid water flows intermittently on present-day Mars.

Using an image on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the space agency was able todiscover chemical evidence of liquid water on the Red Planet.

While researchers from the space agency are confident in their discovery, further investigation will be required to completely validate the theory.

As NASA’s Curiosity rover has been exploring just 50km from one of the sites in question, it seems logical the space agency would redirect its path to examine the area.

Only, it’s not that simple.

First and foremost, every country on Earth is required to follow conditions detailed in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which places restrictions on the actions space agencies can perform while exploring foreign planets.

“States Parties to the Treaty shall pursue studies of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, and conduct exploration of them so as to avoid their harmful contamination and also adverse changes in the environment of the Earth resulting from the introduction of extraterrestrial matter,” stipulates article IX of the Treaty.

As the Curiosity rover may still be carrying some bacteria from its 25 million kilometre journey from Earth to Mars, it does not meet the standards of sanitation required to enter the area where water has been found.

Dark, narrow streaks on Martian slopes such as these at Hale Crater are inferred to be formed by seasonal flow of water on contemporary Mars. Picture: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Dark, narrow streaks on Martian slopes such as these at Hale Crater are inferred to be formed by seasonal flow of water on contemporary Mars. Picture: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of ArizonaSource:Supplied

Director of planetary science at NASA headquarters Jim Green is pushing for the Curiosity rover to enter the sites, claiming the intense radiation environment found on Mars would have killed any bugs on the lander.

However, a recent report from the US National Academy of Sciences and the European Science Foundation refutes these claims suggesting the opposite might be true.

“Although the flux of ultraviolet radiation within the Martian atmosphere would be deleterious to most airborne microbes and spores, dust could attenuate this radiation and enhance microbial viability,” stated the report.

Andrew Coates of University College London’s Mullard space science laboratory said he expected there to be heated discussion over the idea in coming weeks.

“Curiosity now has the chance, for example, to do some closer up, but still remote, measurements, using the ChemCam instrument with lasers, to look at composition,” he told The Guardian.

“I understand there is increasing pressure from the science side to allow that, given this new discovery.”

In addition to contamination fears, there is the logistic issues NASA would encounter sending the rover to examine the sites.

Limitations in the Curiosity rover’s design mean it is only capable of travelling 200m per day and it can only roll over obstacles up to 65cm high.

This means without encountering any obstacles it would take the rover one year to reach its destination, which is time that could be better spent elsewhere.

Man on Mars – Mission to the Red Planet