Planetary Contamination I: The Problem and the Agreements

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Science  24 Mar 1967:
Vol. 155, Issue 3769, pp. 1501-1505
DOI: 10.1126/science.155.3769.1501


The sterility requirements for landed spacecraft tentatively adopted in the COSPAR resolution of 1964 are so severe as to pose a major obstacle to planetary exploration. This by itself would not justify modification of the re quirements, since preservation of the biological integrity of Mars is essential for proper exploration of the planet. However, when the physical and biological assumptions underlying the COSPAR recommendations are com pared with actual conditions on Mars, as established by recent observations, it becomes apparent that the COSPAR as sumptions are unrealistic in important respects. Specifically, the belief that eolian erosion on Mars can effect the release of spores trapped in the interior of solids in periods of time that are short compared with the time scale of the unmanned space program is unsup ported by either observation or theory. On the contrary, the analysis suggests that rates of eolian erosion on Mars are very low. Similarly, present knowledge of the Martian environment opposes the view that terrestrial microorganisms would readily contaminate the planet. The combination of dryness, lack of oxygen, and high ultraviolet flux makes the surface of Mars peculiarly unsuit able for the multiplication of terrestrial organisms. Recent studies give little sup port to the proposal that significant areas of geothermal activity exist on Mars.

These various findings suggest that the COSPAR-recommended constraints could be substantially relaxed without compromising to any significant degree the biological condition of Mars. In particular, a distinction needs to be made between microorganisms trapped in solids and those on exposed sur faces of landed spacecraft. Surface sterility is an unconditional require ment, in the sense that it is imposed by considerations unrelated to the nature of the Martian environment. Sterilization of the interior of solids to the extreme level recommended by COSPAR, however, is based on the as sumption that entrapped organisms con stitute a substantial hazard to the ecology of Mars. This assumption now seems unjustified, and the need for a high degree of interior sterility is doubt ful. Current spacecraft-sterilization pol icies should be revised accordingly.