NASA may deploy Curiosity to scout water on Mars, pending planetary protection approval

NASA's Curiosity Mars rover © NASA
NASA is considering using the Curiosity Rover to take close-up images of potential water sources on Mars… in the hope it won’t harm any potential life that it may find there.

While NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover has been roaming around the Red Planet since it landed in August 2012, scientists are eager to investigate dark streaks on Mars’ mountains, which they believe to be streams of flowing water.

“It’s not as simple as driving a rover to a potential site and taking a scoop of soil,” said Jim Green, NASA’s director of planetary science.

“Not only are these on steep slopes, we need to ensure that planetary protection concerns are met. In other words, how can we search for evidence of life without contaminating the sites with bugs from Earth?” he added.

Pending approval for a mission extension, it is hoped as Curiosity climbs higher up Mount Sharp (a mountain on Mars) it can collect more accurate data that could help explain how water would survive on the dry planet.

Also, a higher vantage point is expected to give scientists an even greater understanding of where the dark streaks of possible water are located and how they change seasonally.

There are two possible gullies that may be within the one-ton rover’s reach on Mount Sharp, but if the dark streaks do mark the presence of water, and as such a prerequisite for life, extra precautions to reduce the risk of contamination from the robotic explorer must be taken.

NASA’s planetary protection officer, Catherine Conley, said their lack of knowledge about the “special regions” means they must be cautious.

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“Kilometers away—it’s unlikely that it would be an issue. In terms of coming much closer, we need to understand well in advance the potential for Earth organisms to come off the rover, and that will tell us how far away the rover should stay,” said Conley.