Are NASA's Rovers Banned from Inspecting Water Flows?

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Rovers Banned for one Main Reason

A couple of weeks ago, NASA scientists announced that they had found evidence of liquid water on the surface of Mars. They make a strong case, but it still needs to be verified. That's just good science.

The problem is --  we can’t.

The Curiosity rover is the closest robot capable of testing the martian soil, but it is still about 50 kilometers from the site NASA has been investigating.  That's a long way to pilot a rover that has only traveled about 10 kilometers in its entire life.  The rover Opportunity has done better. It's traveled over 42 kilometers, but  it's half a world away.

But it's not really that the rovers are so far away that is the real problem. No. The real problem is that, an international treaty signed in 1967 keeps ...

the rovers banned from going anywhere near.

Wait -- what?  How can that be?

Here's the scoop...

When assembling and launching space probes, scientists work hard to keep things as sterile as possible. Clean room. Ultraviolet lights. The works.

Clean rooms will help rovers banned from water investigations

NASA Clean room

But there is just no way to know if a probe picks up something along the way.  And if they can’t guarantee sterilization, there’s no going near that water. 

As Rich Zurek, chief scientist for NASA’s Mars program, explained in a recent Reddit AMA:

Because liquid water appears to be present ... we have to take extra precautions to prevent contamination by Earth life. Our current rovers have not been sterilized to the degree needed to go to an area where liquid water may be present.

Not only is that prudent from a scientific point of view, it's also the law. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which was signed by the United States, specifically forbids  "anyone from sending a mission, robot or human, close to a water source in the fear of contaminating it with life from Earth".

​In other words -- rovers banned!

Of course, sterilizing the rovers could be done if NASA really wanted. Blasting Curiosity with crazy amounts of heat and radiation would wipe out anything and everything that managed to survive the journey from Earth  and free the rovers banned from investigating water sources. But it would also completely fry the rover's electronics.

Not exactly a good idea.

So what's the solution?

Any probe sent from Earth will always be suspect to contamination, but perhaps a rover that is 3D-printed on site  could do the trick. The risk of contamination would be much less. In fact, last year NASA announced that it's developing robots that can 3D-print infrastructure on Mars, so this could well be a possibility.

Until then, we will just have to wait.

And the rovers?  Well, Curiosity and Opportunity will just have to stay away.

What do you think? Does this affect crewed missions to Mars? Share your thoughts in the comments below.​

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