Why Aren’t the Mars Rovers Investigating Suspected Water Flows?

posted: 09/30/15
by: Danny Clemens
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Monday's revelation that liquid water likely flows on Mars was like the season finale of your favorite television show -- a handful of big answers were revealed, but many more questions have since arisen in the fallout.

And, just like viewers of a television show that goes off the air for the summer, we have to wait a while for more answers about water on the Red Planet. During a press conference, NASA's associate administrator for science John Grunsfeld said that he hopes mankind can acquire samples of the alleged Martian liquid at some point in the 2030s.

Curiosity's selfie

Right now, however, there are spacecraft on Mars that could potentially provide more immediate answers than a future mission still in its planning stages -- why isn't NASA telling the Curiosity rover to pack its bags and high-tail it over to the suspected water flows?

As it turns out, NASA must adhere to a strict set of cleanliness guidelines to prevent the possible contamination of samples from foreign bodies by microbes from Earth that made the journey with the spacecraft. Because Curiosity was never intended to be a life-detection mission, it was not subjected to the intense sterilization procedures that would remove all Earth-originating microbes.

Should NASA send Curiosity to the site of suspected water flows, the agency could be in violation of the United Nations Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which requires its signatories to "avoid [...] harmful contamination" of foreign bodies, Scientific American points out.

There are also more practical obstacles that prevent the rovers from investigating the suspected flows. "These features are on steep slopes, so our present rovers would not be able to climb up to them," NASA Mars Program Office Chief Scientist Ruch Zurek revealed in a recent reddit Ask Me Anything session.

Plus, as NPR's Joe Palca points out, it would take Curiosity about a year to motor over to the geological features in question, time much better spent sticking to its original objectives.

For now, it looks like we'll have to wait a bit longer for season 2 of Water on Mars.



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