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How the Fark does that damn robot take those selfies?And from the pic in TFA, Curiosity's wheels are clearly getting worse. Riche: How the Fark does that damn robot take those selfies?There's a camera at the end of its robotic arm which is normally used to take close-up pictures of rocks.
Sounds like what Ed Lu is trying to do with B612, a private project to put a near infrared telescope in orbit to map out all the asteroids. Searching for life should have been the only priority mission Curiosity had.Instead, it's in the best place in all of human history to sneak a microbial peak on a foreign body of water and instead it's strictly verboten!?GYAAAAAA! That Makes Mars Exploration Way More ComplicatedSince NASA deployed the Curiosity rover in 2011, researchers have detected spots of possible briny surface water on Mars. The "selfie" is a composite of several images from different angles, avoiding the arm itself (although you can see shadows on the ground). I won't ever have a job with a title better than that, unless somehow I can become a Rock and Roll icon, or I actually manage to become a professional asshole. That's tricky, because the rover is covered with dormant Earth germs-which could spring to life in a Martian puddle.History will note that the guy who discovered liquid water on Mars was an undergraduate at the University of Arizona, a 20-year-old who played guitar in a death-metal band and worked in a planetary science lab. One day, while comparing different satellite images of a single Martian crater taken at various times of year, he noticed something odd: a set of dark streaks in the soil that grew in the Martian summer and shrank in the winter.
They seemed to flow down the crater's slope, like a spill.It took NASA a few years to gather more evidence after the student made his report, but finally, in September of 2015, the agency called a big press conference. Now a new generation of NASA scientists were on a dais in Washington, DC, musing openly about what this new finding meant for the odds of discovering life on Mars. Once scientists knew what to look for, they found similar dark streaks at more than a dozen other sites. The agency's Curiosity rover was actually within striking distance of a few of these streaks.
It also set off a bunch of quiet changes within the space agency itself.About a month after the press conference, a NASA administrator named Cassie Conley was sitting in her office, staring into her computer screen at a crudely designed website called UFO Sightings Daily. She'd gotten a tip from someone at an astrobiology conference that she might want to check out a particular image posted there.The site was a fairly typical UFO conspiracy operation, run by an amateur sleuth. There were posts that claimed to offer photographic evidence of miniature alien women, tiny star destroyers, and extraterrestrial squirrels. The item that Conley had come looking for was a photograph taken by the Curiosity rover and annotated by the website's author. As purported evidence of intelligent life on Mars, the UFO buff had circled a pile of rocks and labeled them "building with a doorway"-which was just silly.
These new ones were a few feet from the rover-Conley could see its tire tracks imprinted on the sand nearby. In just the next five years, the world's space agencies aim to send five missions to the Red Planet, which will more than double the number of active robots and landers on its surface. In late April, SpaceX announced that it will send an unmanned Red Dragon capsule-the vehicle it eventually plans to use for a human round trip-to the planet as early as 2018.
Between the star power of Elon Musk and the success of last year's movie adaption of Andy Weir's The Martian, American pop culture has space on its mind again.
Which concerns Cassie Conley.Conley's full-time job at NASA is to make sure that we don't royally screw up our first encounter with aliens, however small. She's a kind of interplanetary sheriff, whose main duty is to police the comings and goings of the tiniest Earthlings: microorganisms, which as it turns out are extraordinarily good at hitching rides on spacecraft. As NASA's increasingly large and sophisticated fleet of robot explorers has spread through space over the past decade and sent thrilling findings home-water on Mars, huge geysers erupting from Saturn's moon Enceladus, churning seas beneath Europa's ice-Conley has logged 14-hour days making sure those robots don't infect any heavenly bodies with germs from Earth. The more likely a destination is to support life, the more stringent she is.The nurse pressed a phone to Conley's ear.

Essentially, Conley's office serves to prevent NASA from doing to Martians what European explorers did to Native Americans with smallpox. Because Mars lacks Earth's history of abundant life, it has that much more raw material for Earth's bacterial stowaways to devour-should any of them, say, come into contact with water, find a niche they can survive in, and start to reproduce. In the late 1960s, when the space age was brand-new, the specter of interplanetary contagion ran high in the public imagination. In 1969, Michael Crichton published The Andromeda Strain, his novel about an extraterrestrial microbe that drops to earth on a satellite and wipes out an Arizona town. Two months later, when the Apollo 11 crew returned from their triumphant moon landing, NASA spirited the astronauts from their ocean splashdown to a hermetically sealed facility in Houston, where they were isolated, poked, prodded, and scrubbed with bleach for two weeks before they could receive their full hero's welcome. But those findings turned out to be wrong-so now, who knows?In short, when Conley picked up the phone after her visit to UFO Sightings Daily, it wasn't to spur Curiosity's team on toward that possible water. It was to keep the rover away from it.Conley is a small person, slender and barely more than 5 feet tall.
When we meet at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in suburban Maryland, she all but disappears inside her heavy coat. Haldane, after a famous 20th-century British geneticist-whose theories about the origins of life helped inspire the idea of planetary protection.Conley started out working for NASA as a research biologist, specializing in experiments that used nematodes, or roundworms-organisms the size of a speck of lint-as animal specimens. In January 2003, she managed to get one of her experiments sent up on space shuttle Columbia. It was designed to test how nematodes' muscle development and metabolism would stand up to prolonged time in zero gravity, the kind of exposure humans would need to endure on a journey to Mars.But that February, during its return descent into Earth's atmosphere, the shuttle disintegrated at an altitude of 227,000 feet while traveling at 22 times the speed of sound. Eleven weeks later, she was riding down a California highway with two friends when another driver collided with their car, killing one of her companions and disabling the other. Conley awoke from three days of unconsciousness with five cracked vertebrae and a morphine drip.
The reporter said, "Your worms survived the crash."The debris field from the shuttle disaster had stretched over hundreds of miles of Texas and Louisiana.
Workers spent months searching through the wreckage, and they had just recovered five small aluminum canisters. Inside, most of Conley's worms were still alive-dormant from months without food but otherwise none the worse for wear.The twin crashes imbued Conley with a visceral sense of how hardy simple organisms can be. Life seems fragile to people, because people can live only in a very small range of conditions. Keeping a small number of humans alive on a voyage into space is a fantastically complicated, expensive problem. But most life is simple, abundant, and incredibly strong.Setting out to kill all the bugs that would tag along on a space mission is, it turns out, a pretty elaborate and costly proposition in itself. But that became Conley's job in 2006, when she signed on as America's planetary protector in chief. Day to day, her work involves calculating the odds that any given piece of equipment might encounter alien life (very low on a waterless body like our own moon; higher for spacecraft nearing Europa) and dialing in a regimen of cooking, sterilizing, and scouring in order to eradicate invasive Earth bugs accordingly.
Every time scientists make new discoveries about Martian conditions, or even about the tolerances of extremophiles here on Earth, it alters the skein of probabilities that guide Conley's planetary protection protocols.Because it's impossible to eliminate all of the microbes from a Mars rover, even the most stringent decontamination protocols are defined in ratios and probabilities. The most Conley can do is make sure there are no more than 0.03 microbes per square meter of spacecraft surface area. The job requires a research scientist's openness to strange possibility and a Vegas oddsmaker's statistical discipline.To find out what it looks like to eradicate all those bugs, I take a trip to the Goddard Space Flight Center and find myself dressed from head to toe in a bunny suit inside a gleaming white clean room.
To even enter the room I wrestle with a series of hoods, boots, gloves, and garments using an intricate choreography designed to prevent any contact with unclean surfaces.Inside, a guy sits for hours a day in his own bunny suit, hand-assembling a mass spectrometer that will be sent to the Red Planet on the European Space Agency's ExoMars rover in 2020. Above it, mounted in the ceiling, is a device that emits microbe-killing ultraviolet-C light.

Every day, a technician cleans the room with an alternating protocol of isopropyl alcohol and diluted hydrogen peroxide (to outflank microbes that grow resistant to one or the other), and then NASA microbiologist Erin Lalime swabs for microbial cultures and tests for levels of contamination. Once the mass spectrometer is assembled, it will get cooked for 60 hours at 110 degrees Celsius. But some microbes will still make it through.To help me contemplate how this is even possible, Lalime describes how the strands of DNA inside a bacterial spore exposed to extreme conditions will huddle together into a small ball surrounded by a thick shell of protein. At that point, the spore is almost completely devoid of energy and water: "metabolically, almost dead," she says. To them, the "harsh vacuum of space"-Conley likes to put this phrase in air quotes-is a Sunday stroll.Conley's job is, by nature, a pretty lonely one.
She's a microbiologist in an agency dominated by physicists and engineers, a woman in a field dominated by men, and a sheriff (someone even gave her a joke badge) who stands a head shorter than many of her colleagues. To many engineers, geologists, and Mars enthusiasts, the whole project of planetary protection simply represents an expensive set of precautions taken in the name of extremely low-probability events. History, she says, is littered with stories of human carelessness and environmental devastation, born not from malice but from cognitive limitation, a failure to contend with the murkiness of unknown unknowns. But if it seems impossible that extraterrestrial life could ever thrive there, take a look at Earth's own extremophiles. The more researchers learn about how these tiny organisms eke out an existence in our planet's least hospitable niches, the more plausible it seems that life may have evolved on other planets. NASA had deliberately sent it to Gale Crater, thought to be among the least likely places to harbor life, because the rover was largely built for geological research. All they needed to reanimate and reproduce was the right combination of food, water, and heat.At the meeting that eventually got called, Ashwin Vasavada, lead scientist in charge of Curiosity, said he was skeptical that the newly discovered streaks-the ones from UFO Sightings Daily-were actually water.
His own research suggested that conditions in Gale Crater do occasionally produce briny surface water, but that these particular streaks were probably just tiny avalanches.
In fact, the 2020 rover is being assembled partly with equipment left over from Curiosity's build.
The new rover will be designed to search for signs of ancient microbial life on Mars and-even more ambitiously-to collect soil samples that can be retrieved by another spacecraft and sent back to Earth.
And while the project's leaders declined to talk to me, observers inside and outside of NASA say they're in a heated battle with the Office of Planetary Protection over where they can land and what measures they need to take to sterilize their craft before it leaves for Mars.
Because much of their equipment was designed or built well before the discovery of water, it wouldn't withstand the strict protocols Conley would require today. And with the 2020 launch window rapidly approaching, the project has fallen behind schedule in getting its decontamination procedures approved by Conley's office."There are huge, huge battles going on inside NASA," says The Martian author Weir, who has become close to several people at the agency. And if Earth life can't survive on Mars, they contend, we shouldn't worry about sending more.Conley has a response to this argument. Even if a microbe on Mars shares the same deep origins as us, a few thousand years down a separate evolutionary pathway would still make them pretty alien indeed. But ultimately, the best case for caution, and for planetary protection, may be simply to point to all the ways in which our knowledge of Mars has changed just in the past few years. Curiosity ended up almost on top of possible liquid water because we didn't know what we didn't know. And to her, that means there is a small, precious window to learn as much as we can-and just maybe discover life that is truly alien to us-before they get there.

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