Mars spacecraft sterilized before launch

Aug. 6, 2007 at 11:44 AM

LOS ANGELES, Aug. 6 (UPI) -- When U.S. rockets blast into space an obscure part of NASA called the Planetary Protection unit must keep Earth microbes from going along for the ride.

The unit, whose motto is “All of the planets, all of the time,” made sure that NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander was sterile before its weekend launch, The Los Angeles Times reported Monday.

Scientists had to scrape every bit of organic material from the spacecraft to prevent it from contaminating the Red Planet’s north pole where it will search for signs of water and organic material.

In addition to worrying about sending microorganisms to Mars, NASA officials also are concerned about the samples Phoenix collects.

“If we’re bringing samples back to Earth, we don’t want to bring back something like the Andromeda Strain,” said NASA’s Cassie Conley, referring to the Michael Crichton novel in which a space pathogen causes a terrestrial outbreak.

Conley says samples of Martian soil will be treated as if they were more dangerous than the Ebola virus at the Planetary Protection unit’s research facility at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

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