Jan 17, 2014
The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), comprising a cruise stage; an aeroshell; an entry, descent, and landing system; and the radioisotope thermoelectric generator-powered Curiosity rover, made history with its unprecedented sky crane landing on Mars on August 6, 2012. The mission's primary science objective has been to explore the area surrounding Gale Crater and assess its habitability for past life. Because microbial contamination could profoundly impact the integrity of the mission and compliance with international treaty was required, planetary protection measures were implemented on MSL hardware to verify that bioburden levels complied with NASA regulations. By applying the proper antimicrobial countermeasures throughout all phases of assembly, the total bacterial endospore burden of MSL at the time of launch was kept to 2.78×10⁵ spores, well within the required specification of less than 5.0×10⁵ spores. The total spore burden of the exposed surfaces of the landed MSL hardware was 5.64×10⁴, well below the allowed limit of 3.0×10⁵ spores. At the time of launch, the MSL spacecraft was burdened with an average of 22 spores/m², which included both planned landed and planned impacted hardware. Here, we report the results of a campaign to implement and verify planetary protection measures on the MSL flight system.