In August, NASA moved the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft into the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility (PHSF) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. In this large cleanroom, technicians and engineers will test and fuel the spacecraft prior to being moved to its launch pad for a scheduled
November 18 launch. If all goes as planned, MAVEN should
arrive at Mars next August and begin its mission of surveying
the Martian upper atmosphere to collect data and test theories
as to what happened to the early denser Martian atmosphere
that left the planet now dry and desolate.
The PHSF has seen many spacecraft and spacecraft components go through its cleanrooms, including the Hubble Telescope (and replacement parts),
Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity), numerous Space Shuttle payloads, and more.
Development of the PHSF at KSC and similar facilities throughout the world
came about as a result of the United Nations Outer Space Treaty signed by most
countries in January 1967. Article IX of this document states that “parties to the
Treaty shall conduct space exploration so as to avoid the harmful contamination
[of other planets] and avoid adverse changes to Earth’s environment resulting from
the introduction of extraterrestrial matter.” Procedures for ensuring this protection were established by the U.N.’s Committee on Space Research and based on a
five-category scale depending upon their catastrophic potential. Missions to Mars
are classed as Category III where forward-contamination (Earth microbes invading
other planets) could occur.
But most current spacecraft are big objects (Curiosity weighs 900 kg and is the size
of a small car) and impossible to sterilize. Even the PHSF, although categorized as a
Class 10,000 or better cleanroom, cannot ensure a totally clean environment or sterilized spacecraft. Indeed, research performed in a number of spacecraft cleanrooms
found a wide range of bacteria that survived in harsh environments, high temperatures, high pH, and high levels of chlorine. Most of these bacteria contaminants were
found to be introduced into the spacecraft cleanrooms by cleanroom personnel, even
though they were wearing extensive protective gear. And even if they could be purged
of most bacteria, some species have spent 18 months attached to exterior walls of the
International Space Station (ISS) where they were battered by cosmic rays and high-energy particles and, when returned to Earth, they had spores that germinated.
So, spacecraft cleanrooms like the PHSF may be clean, but they’re definitely not
sterile, nor do they have the ability to sterilize spacecraft. Long-term, high-tempera-ture sterilizing soaks performed on early spacecraft also cannot be performed on
current spacecraft—current electronic components and composite materials cannot withstand those environments.
When informed about the inability to sterilize spacecraft and the threat of contaminating extraterrestrial planets with Earth-borne bacteria, NASA’s Planetary Protection
Group states that their goal is to keep bacteria on a spacecraft below a certain threshold,
such that the probability of them surviving the radiation and rigors of an interplanetary
voyage and then being able to proliferate on another planet is effectively zero.
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