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How Do We Keep Our Bacteria From Contaminating the Galaxy?


Every mission to space must go through a proper
cleaning procedure before launch. But how clean are they really? Cleaning spacecraft is to prevent contamination
of any place explored in space. AKA planetary protection. Planetary Protection was set-up in 1967 as
part of an international law known as The Outer Space Treaty. It was set up to limit the amount of Earth
organisms that go into space. If say an Earth microbe were to land on another
planet through one of our missions, it could cause major cross-contamination issues when
collecting samples from that planet. This can cause problems with data analyses. If something from Earth mixes with something
on another planet–how can we tell the difference between say us and an alien?! Not to mention if an organism from Earth were
to land in a region where there’s high chance that life can survive—-can someone say accidental
colonization? A possible example is, there are places on
Mars with the potential of harboring water. I’d hate to imagine an Earth microbe landing
there and accidentally spawning life. This is why we make sure to clean stuff that
goes to space. In order to prevent biological contamination
amongst the planets in our solar system and beyond, an international agency known as COSPAR
has set these guidelines for launching missions into space depending on where they are going. So for federal space agencies, rules and guidelines
are mandatory and proper cleaning is monitored. But private sector space agencies don’t
necessarily have to follow the same rules for recent missions. Because there is currently little framework
overseeing “non-traditional” commercial space missions. AKA sending humans into orbit, a rover to
the Moon or… a Tesla to space. These are things not listed in the treaty. Which is why the government is trying to pass
what’s known as the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act. Right now before a company launches anything
they must first go through the Federal Aviation Administration to get a license to launch. The only thing is.. once the payload separates
in space, the FAA no longer has authority… Depending on where the mission will go, COSPAR
will determine the extent of sterilization. If you’re sending something like a rover,
that will touch the surface of a planet–then it’s time to start baking! This is a procedure used to clean the surface
of spacecraft of any earthly organisms. They do this by putting the spacecraft under
very high amounts of heat for an extended period of time. Like 111 degrees Celsius for 30 hours. They can also use chemical cleaning with chemical
sterilizers like alcohol or UV irradiation. Of course, some organisms can still survive
— so no method is perfect. The PPO allows for up to 300,000 spores on
a spacecraft, which may seem like a lot, but they’d all fit on the head of a large pin. So doing multiple and thorough cleaning procedures
is a MUST to be sure there are minimal lingering Earth microbes. Knowing that… what I’m wondering is, if
we have these strict regulations for when things LEAVE Earth, then what happens when
things ENTER Earth from elsewhere in the solar system? Couldn’t they, too, contain contamination
from another planet? Like meteorites that have landed here from
Mars…? Things that could survive in space are called
extremophiles, and they might exist inside rocks on Mars, but to get in there we’ll
have to crack them open. Our sister show, Science in the Extremes looks
at that… here. One last thing, Elon’s red Tesla roadster
did get licensed by the FAA for the launch… but does that mean it got cleaned? SpaceX has yet to comment on that.

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