Could Earth-based microbes survive a trip to Mars? Yes! That’s why we made sure NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover met cleanliness requirements before leaving our home planet. Dr. Moogega Cooper from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is here to fill us in.
Yes, it is possible for microorganisms to survive the journey from Earth to Mars. That’s why we have a program specifically dedicated to ensuring the spacecraft is as clean as possible before leaving Earth—if we ever detect life on Mars, we are certain that it did not come from our own planet.
The journey to Mars includes the harsh vacuum of space, UV and ionizing radiation, and drastic temperature changes depending on if you’re facing the Sun or shielded away from it. While most microbes on Earth could not survive these conditions, one prominent type of microbe that could survive the journey are called bacteria endospores, which can form seed-like structures that allow them to stay dormant until better conditions arise. This “superpower” is why spore forming bacteria are given special focus when NASA cleans spacecraft being sent to Mars.
Just to give you an idea, the Mars 2020 mission – which includes NASA’s Perseverance rover – carried 10 times less bacteria than what you’d find in a teaspoon of seawater.
So yes, it is possible for a microbe to survive the journey from Earth to Mars, which is why it’s our job to make sure it doesn’t hitch a ride on NASA spacecraft.