Do We Need Rules To Make Sure We Don’t Pollute Mars?

The cost of sterilizing spacecraft for Mars is just too damn high, researchers say. And then there is the issue of how bad we are at it anyway.

Do We Need Rules To Make Sure We Don’t Pollute Mars?
Mars via Shutterstock

At NASA, there is an entire office dedicated to preventing any living Earth creatures (think bacteria, not people) from inadvertently landing on other planets. But two astrobiologists argue in the latest Nature Geoscience that the Office of Planetary Protection–which functions sort of like the EPA of space–should give up trying to fully sterilize spacecraft for Mars. If transfers of life to Mars are even possible, Alberto Fairén and Dirk Schulze-Makuch write, it’s probably already happened.


“If Earth life cannot thrive on Mars, we don’t need any special cleaning protocol for our spacecraft,” Fairén wrote Co.Exist in an email. “And if Earth life actually can survive on Mars, it most likely already does, after 4 billion years of meteoritic transport and four decades of spacecraft investigations not always following sterilization procedures.”

The Curiosity rover, carrier of illicit drill bits to the Martian surface. Credit: NASA JPL.

In short: Maybe there is life on Mars, and maybe we put it there, and maybe so what. As an example, Fairén points out that a set of unsterilized drill bits were opened up on Mars during the Curiosity mission. Contamination, he says, is already happening.

On the other hand, the United States has agreed to make preventing space contamination a priority over several decades, starting with a 1967 UN treaty governing the practices of interplanetary travel and research. Countries that agreed to the terms “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,” Article IX states.

The other argument Fairén and Shulze-Makuch make against spacecraft sterilization sounds a lot like any argument made against almost any kind of regulation: Fairén and Shulze-Makuch feel that the cost of the sterilization process is too expensive, and therefore hinders new missions.

As an example, the researchers cite the Viking program, which sent two spaceships to search for life on Mars in 1976. Fairén points out that planetary protection measures cost some 10% of the Viking’s budget, which was at the time $1 billion. “But obviously we need to scale the … budgets to today’s reality, so actually we are talking about something between 200 and 300 million dollars,” Fairén wrote. “You can do a lot of science with that amount of money.”

Restrictions are even more careful if ships are traveling to areas that could potentially support life. With just the cost of cleaning spacecraft for those missions, the researchers argue, you could finance an entirely new, relatively cheap mission in search of Martian life.


Let’s just hope that life didn’t arrive there on a spaceship.

About the author

Sydney Brownstone is a Seattle-based former staff writer at Co.Exist. She lives in a Brooklyn apartment with windows that don’t quite open, and covers environment, health, and data.