Checking for Contamination

Monday, October 4, 2010.
Mono Lake, California

Credit: Henry Bortman

Scientists and engineers hoping to field-test a prototype of a future Mars rover were frustrated again today by bad weather. The rover, outfitted with robotic technology capable of drilling into rock, collecting samples and storing them for later analysis, may help NASA develop a system that collects samples of martian rock for return to Earth. Weather didn’t prevent the research team’s “cleaning ladies” from proceeding with their work, however.

Yesterday the clean team spent several hours removing contaminants from all the parts of the drilling and caching system that might come in contact with the collected samples. These contaminants included organic material, such as lubricants used on the rover, or even fingerprint oils; biological material, such as bacteria, pollen, and tiny flakes of skin and hair; and rock dust left over from previous drilling runs. If any of these were to find their way into the samples from Mono Lake, they could mislead scientists into thinking that a substance was present in their samples that had actually come from an outside source.

Today the clean team double-checked the parts they cleaned yesterday to make sure there was no residual organic or biological contamination. Shown here, the clean team’s leader, Jen Eigenbrode (right), an astrobiologist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, holds one of the rover’s drill bits, while Mihaela Glamoclija, a post-doc in microbiology at the Carnegie Institution of Washington (CIW) samples it with a sterile cotton swab. The swab was subsequently analyzed for the presence of contaminants. Each critical piece was swabbed and checked in this way.

The Mono Lake field test is a joint project between engineers at JPL, who developed the sample-acquisition and -caching system, and the CIW-based AMASE team, a group of researchers who for the past several years have performed tests in the Arctic of Mars-related scientific instruments.

Credit: Henry Bortman

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