May 20, 2014 – The Mars Laboratory known as Curiosity was assembled meticulously in a clean room with those who worked on it donning masks and gowns and slipcovers over shoes. But with all those precautions it turns out that Curiosity when it took off for Mars had 65 species of bacteria stowed away on board and that the “little buggers” turned out to exhibit some extremophile behavior, resistant to the heat and cold of outer space and ultraviolet radiation.
How do we know this? Before Curiosity launched scientists at East Carolina University took sample swabs of the Mars rover’s surfaces including the heat shield. In the laboratory the swabs were cultivated and lo and behold a whole bunch of life started to grow, most of it related to bacillus. The researchers exposed the bugs to extremes of dryness, cold, a range of pH liquids from acids to alkalis and ultraviolet light. The bugs in 11% of the cases survived one or more of these conditions using a variety of defense mechanisms including metabolic changes, forming spore coatings, or altering themselves biochemically.
The question is, did any of them get to Mars after the ride through space? And if they did will the future life we find on Mars be that which we put there?
For the Mars 2020 rover mission with a focus on searching for life both past and present on the Red Planet, it will be important to catalogue all of the bugs that the researchers found so that they can be ruled out during testing for native Martian flora. Let’s hope our bugs don’t kill the Martians before Mars 2020 gets there, or before human crews arrive.