June 10, 2009

New space cleaning method is created

U.S. and British scientists have developed a cleaning protocol for space hardware that could be used on missions to other planets.

The protocol was developed as part of a project to investigate life that exists in extreme Arctic environments, which are the closest analogue on Earth to the surface of Mars.

The protocol, developed and tested by scientists at the University of Leeds and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, deals with the dilemma known as forward contamination -- ensuring microscopic life on Earth doesn't hitch a ride across space and jeopardize the integrity of samples collected by rovers.

Professor Liane Benning, a University of Leeds biogeochemist and study co-author, said the decontamination protocol involves a cocktail of chemicals.

We are trying to avoid a case of mistaken identity, Benning said. "We know on Mars, if present, any biological signatures will be extremely scarce. Therefore it is essential that we are able to minimize 'background noise' and to document just how clean our sampling devices really are before we use them,

We are now able to fully decontaminate sampling devices in the lab and field to null levels of detectable organic biosignatures, before any samples are collected. Importantly, this new procedure doesn't just sterilize, but it also cleans off any trace organic molecules of dead organisms.

The research appears in the journal Astrobiology.