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Planetary Hygiene

January 19, 2017

Scientists strive to keep our spacecraft germ-free.

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The solar arrays on NASA's InSight lander are deployed in this test inside a clean room at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver. NASA JPL-Caltech Lockheed Martin

The solar arrays on NASA’s InSight lander, eventually bound for Mars, inside a clean room at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lockheed Martin)

BOB HIRSHON (host):

Spacecraft hygiene. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

The NASA Office of Planetary Protection is sort of a high-tech janitorial service cleaning and checking spacecraft for bacteria and their tough spores. Betsy Pugel is deputy to the Planetary Protection Officer.

BETSY PUGEL (NASA):

So that when something goes to Mars, or Enceladus, places that may have life, that we know what we’re taking along in terms of a biological load.

HIRSHON:

But she says no matter how carefully they scrub, some spores manage to survive.

PUGEL:

Nature always finds a way. You think you’ve cleaned something to the nth degree and somehow, somewhere there’s something that manages to persist.

HIRSHON:

In fact, the extreme efforts the group takes to disinfect the spacecraft have led to the discovery of new types of super-tough microorganisms that survive their efforts — clues to the very sorts of microbes that might live on other worlds. I’m Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the Science Society.

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Story by Bob Hirshon