Is Phoenix, and one of its premier instruments, TEGA, covered in too much microscopic crud from Earth to detect Martian organics? That’s the question I try to explore in my latest story on the main Nature news site. TEGA, pictured on the right, is about to begin baking soil samples and sniffing the gases that come off it in the hopes of detecting organic molecules. But whether the TEGA team can say anything definitive will depend on how free the instrument is of Earth organics. Yesterday, Phoenix had its scoop poised at the edge of one of TEGA’s eight oven doors, and today, it was going to let the soil dribble through TEGA’s sieve.
New Scientist reporter (and former Nature intern) Ewen Callaway has an excellent story on a related issue: Are Earth microbes so hardy that they could survive on Mars? A JPL microbiologist found a lot more bugs than you might think living in supposedly clean assembly rooms. And while great care was taken with the robotic arm, wrapping it in a biological barrier, there are other parts of the spacecraft that were not kept as clean. What about the lander feet? They don’t interact with the soil as much as the robotic arm, but they could easily have landed directly on ice. Is an antiseptic wipe down before launch enough?