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Jan 17, 2014
Astrobiology
On November 26, 2011, the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) launched from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station aboard an Atlas V 541 rocket, taking its first step toward exploring the past habitability of Mars' Gale Crater. Because microbial contamination could profoundly impact the integrity of the mission, and compliance with international treaty was a necessity, planetary protection measures were implemented on all MSL hardware to verify that bioburden levels complied with NASA regulations. The cleanliness of the Atlas V payload fairing (PLF) and associated ground support systems used to launch MSL were also evaluated. By applying proper recontamination countermeasures early and often in the encapsulation process, the PLF was kept extremely clean and was shown to pose little threat of recontaminating the enclosed MSL flight system upon launch. Contrary to prelaunch estimates that assumed that the interior PLF spore burden ranged from 500 to 1000 spores/m², the interior surfaces of the Atlas V PLF were extremely clean, housing a mere 4.65 spores/m². Reported here are the practices and results of the campaign to implement and verify planetary protection measures on the Atlas V launch vehicle and associated ground support systems used to launch MSL. All these facilities and systems were very well kept and exceeded the levels of cleanliness and rigor required in launching the MSL payload.

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