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Planetary Hygiene

January 1, 2017

Scientists strive to keep our spacecraft germ-free.


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)


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


Story by Bob Hirshon