A New Microbe Living in Spacecraft Clean Rooms

This microscopic image shows dozens of individual bacterial cells of the recently discovered species Tersicoccus phoenicis. This species has been found in only two places: clean rooms in Florida and South America where spacecraft are assembled for launch. Spacecraft clean rooms are one of the most thoroughly checked environments on Earth for what microbes are present. The monitoring provides an indication of what species might get into space aboard a spacecraft. The image includes a scale bar showing that each of the bacterial cells is about one micrometer, or micron, across (about 0.00004 inch). Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Scientists have identified a new microbe in two geographically distant spacecraft assembly clean rooms. The bacteria is dubbed Tersicoccus phoenicis, since it was first found in the assembly clean room of the Mars Phoenix Lander.

Spacecraft are assembled in clean rooms to prevent microorganisms from accidentally hitching a ride to space on missions. However, microbes are so prevalent on Earth that it is impossible to get a clean room 100% microbe-free.

The microbes that do survive attempts to sterilize a clean room tend to be very hardy. They can live with very low nutrients and are able to tolerate heavy cleaning processes that expose them to powerful chemicals and strong ultraviolet radiation. This is why microbiologists survey clean rooms in order to identify the organisms that are present.

There are many reasons that scientists try to prevent microbes from attaching to spacecraft that are heading out into the Solar System. Microbes from Earth that travel to space could contaminate other planets like Mars. Earth microbes could also interfere with experiments that are designed to detect signs of life on other planets.

In the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, a clean room technician takes a measurement on the Phoenix spacecraft. The Phoenix lander is currently en route to Mars where it will search for signs of water and life below the planet’s surface. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflet

Tersicoccus phoenicis is not only a new species, but it’s also an entirely new genus (the next level up in the scientific system for classifying life on Earth). It was found in a clean room at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The microbe was then spotted in a second location -2500 miles away – at the European Space Agency’s facilities in Kourou, French Guiana. So far, these are the only two locations on Earth where Tersicoccus phoenicis is known to thrive.

Planetary Protection

Keeping spacecraft clean falls under a discipline called ‘Planetary Protection.’ International treaties have actually been drafted and signed that provide guidance on how ‘clean’ a spacecraft needs to be before it travels to places like the Moon and Mars.

Check out the United Nations Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies: http://www.unoosa.org/oosa/SpaceLaw/moon.html

To help protect the Solar System from contamination by Earth organisms (and vice versa), NASA has teams dedicated to Planetary Protection.

How a Microbe gets its Name

Tersicoccus phoenicis:

  • Tersi comes from the Latin for ‘clean.’
  • Cocci is a term used to describe the shape of circular bacteria, and comes form the Greek word for ‘berry.’
  • Phoenicis was chosen because the microbe was first discovered in the clean room facility for the Mars Phoenix Lander back in 2007.

"We want to have a better understanding of these bugs, because the capabilities that adapt them for surviving in clean rooms might also let them survive on a spacecraft," said Parag Vaishampayan in a press release from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "This particular bug survives with almost no nutrients."


Into the Clean Room: Go inside a "clean room" with NASA’s Digital Learning Network.