back to article Japan's mission to mine Mars' moon is cleared – now they've filled out the right paperwork on alien world contamination

Japanese space agency JAXA has been given the all clear from eggheads to attempt a landing on Mars' largest moon, drill into it, and bring a sample back to Earth without an Andromeda Strain incident. The mission, dubbed MMX and scheduled for 2024, will involve a robot arm attached to a spacecraft boring a hole into Phobos. It …

  1. Zog_but_not_the_first Silver badge
    Coat

    1,000,000 to 1

    The chances...

    I'll get my spacesuit.

    1. OssianScotland
      Holmes

      Re: 1,000,000 to 1

      As any fule know, million to one chances happen nine times out of ten....

      ….GNU TP (closest I can get to a Sam Vimes icon)

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: 1,000,000 to 1

        Actually this can be true. If it's a million to 1 chance, and you do it 10 million times (or the town/city/planet does) then yes... it will happen and RUD proceeds!

  2. John70

    The panel is made up of an international team of scientists to uphold the United Nations’ Outer Space Treaty of 1967. One of the basic principles says that “states shall avoid harmful contamination of space and celestial bodies.”

    Pre-cursor to the Prime Directive?

    1. wayne 8

      “states shall avoid harmful contamination of space and celestial bodies.”

      Here on Earth we get toxic resource extraction, glyphosphates, GMO, and 5G.

      But there is great concern about the climate changing.

    2. Francis Boyle Silver badge

      Well

      Elon would be pretty pissed to finally make it to Mars only to have to deal with a bunch of gangster microbes.

  3. Mr Benny

    Too much fuss about contamination

    Earth microbes have almost certainly made it to the moon and probably mars numerous times via impact ejecta in the last few billion years already (probably trillions of microbes were ejected into space when the dinosaur killer hit 65m years ago alone). If it had any viability on these other bodies it would already be thriving there. As far as we can tell it isn't, at least not in any obvious way, so why on earth carry out these absurd sterilisation precautions?

    1. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

      Re: Too much fuss about contamination

      You could easily survive there with a suitable space suit. However, if you were on Earth (already wearing that space suit), and something hit you hard enough to propel you to the Moon, how do you rate your chances?

      There's a not-so-subtle distinction between being able to survive in an environment, it being possible to transport you to that environment, being able to survive that transport, and the combination of all three...

      1. TechnicalBen Silver badge

        Re: Too much fuss about contamination

        This.

        There are no trees on the moon/Mars. And as hard as it is to accept our assumptions were wrong about life on Mars. We were wrong.

        If there was, we would see it. While of cause, even deserts and ice caps here have some form of life that may be difficult to see, 99.9% of it will discolour or change the environment so much, that after a little peek you cannot miss it.

        If Mars had life, then we would see it. However, contamination is contamination, at least for the space agencies and their equipment, even if Mars could shrug off a common cold with no problem! ;)

        1. ibmalone Silver badge

          Re: Too much fuss about contamination

          Complicated life "only" started about 1 billion years ago (depending what you count as complicated, but plants date from around then), while single celled organisms have been around about 4 billion years. There's a big gap before things kicked off. If Mars is less hospitable then there's a chance there is life there that hasn't developed beyond single cells.

        2. Captain Scarlet Silver badge
          Trollface

          Re: Too much fuss about contamination

          Unless its a Mysteron :P

          What do you mean you can see the wires!

          1. STOP_FORTH
            Alien

            Re: Too much fuss about contamination

            You have to admire a race that can build a city with Quality Street wrappers.

            Maybe that's Muskie's plan? Feed the crew with cheap UK confectionary, then use the discarded wrappers to construct a micrometeorite-proof habitat. Hope they take a dentist.

      2. Mr Benny

        Re: Too much fuss about contamination

        "how do you rate your chances?"

        Quite good if I were a microbe inside a rock who can survive quite a few thousand G without serious injury. Scale matters.

        1. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

          Re: Too much fuss about contamination

          An exercise for the reader:

          You are able to throw a rock hard enough to reach the Moon. Exactly how hot does it get from atmospheric heating?

          There's a reason that most meteorites that are found on Earth are of the metallic type; chondritic (rocky) meteorites are typically small and well fractured by the time they arrive, and those don't have to be travelling at escape velocity to get here. Note that these form in space, so can be reasonably large when they start out. You're going to need a pretty big impact to have a chance of dislodging anything bigger than a pebble into orbit, and those sorts of impact tend to sterilise the area they are about to hit before they even arrive due to the radiant heating from atmospheric impact. The last of these arrived some 65 million years ago, and caused a bit of a kerfuffle at the time...

          Now, there's an argument that thngs could arrive here inside rocks that have been knocked off other planets, notably ones without a substantial atmosphere, if the inside of that rock doesn't get too hot, and whatever is inside it can survive the force of impact, and is also resistant to the irradiation it will have received whilst in space, possibly for millions of years.

          1. Killing Time

            Re: Too much fuss about contamination

            So there was this Tardigrade minding his own business, sitting inside a rock......

          2. Mr Benny

            Re: Too much fuss about contamination

            In a suitably large impact the atmosphere is blasted out of the way so atmospheric heating isn't an issue. And if only iron survived being flung into space by impacts without vapourising we wouldn' t have the moon.

          3. vtcodger Silver badge

            Re: Too much fuss about contamination

            "There's a reason that most meteorites that are found on Earth are of the metallic type"

            I'm absolutely for sure not a meteorite expert. But my understanding is that the reason most reported meteorites are metallic is possibly selection bias. Metallic meteorites are relatively recognizable, magnetic, and pretty durable whereas stony meteorites tend to look more like just another rock, laugh at magnets, and some decompose fairly readily in wet environments. I've read that in Antarctica where all the rocks on the icecap are assumed to have arrived by air, the percentage of metallic objects is quite low.

            As to whether living critters can by blasted into space from Earth. I dunno. Too many variables. For one thing, there's that whacking great initial acceleration required. Because of drag during exit, initial velocities well in excess of escape velocity of 11.2 km/s would be needed. OTOH, algal cysts ("acritarchs") are really durable. And they've been around for billions of years and presumably many Earth-bolide encounters. For large impactors, there may be some possibility of single celled organisms riding along inside rocks. My understanding is that variety of living creatures were found living deep in the Kola super-deep borehole despite the great heat and pressure. Maybe some of the creatures living deep in the Earth can tolerate cold and millenia in transit as well.

            1. STOP_FORTH

              Re: Too much fuss about contamination

              Even stony meteorites contain enough iron to deflect a small, powerful magnet suspended on a thread. (Saw this on Youtube, therefore must be true.)

              Otherwise, agree with everything about selection bias.

              I'm still puzzled that the exo-planet community make such a big thing about finding so many gas giants orbiting really close to stars. They use a number of techniques to find exo-planets, but the transit method is really good at finding large planets in close orbits.

          4. Marshalltown

            Re: Too much fuss about contamination

            Can't find it any more, but over ten years ago there was a report of the discover of halite crystals in a presumably "Martian" meteorite recovered in Antarctica. Salt is known from various other meteorites already: http://www.psrd.hawaii.edu/Nov99/PurpleSalt.html. The commonest souce are chondritic meteorites, and it has been observed that common methods of preparing meteorite samples for examination use water - oops. But that brings up really intriguing things like, chondrites exposed at the surface might have any salt they carry dissolved by rain, and if there were organics within that salt, they would then be released into the environment. Consider that the Murchison meteorite had so much organic material in it that it literally stank.

      3. Kernel Silver badge

        Re: Too much fuss about contamination

        "You could easily survive there with a suitable space suit. However, if you were on Earth (already wearing that space suit), and something hit you hard enough to propel you to the Moon, how do you rate your chances?"

        For myself (or for that matter, any other life form big enough to be visible) not very highly - but as they say, F=ma, so if you have as little mass as a virus does then the force needed to produce the necessary acceleration is not that great.

        A flea can jump to many times it's own height and land safely afterwards - why can't elephants do the same?

        1. Grooke

          Re: Too much fuss about contamination

          For a lone bacterium, I think the issue will be more about acceleration and speed/air resistance than force.

          Getting instantaneously accelerated to escape velocity* means over 1000 Gs, and then you have to survive going through the atmosphere at said escape velocity.

          *You'll need to be going much faster than that initially to account for drag.

    2. Mark 85 Silver badge

      Re: Too much fuss about contamination

      There's a whole lot of difference between microbes on/in meteors and coming back to earth or leaving earth in an exploratory vehicle. So until we know for certain, I daresay that proper precautions should be taken not to contaminate either planet.

  4. Paul Herber Silver badge

    "from well underneath the moon's surface"

    Where there's a well there must be water!

    1. John Robson Silver badge

      Re: "from well underneath the moon's surface"

      Plenty of dry wells in various places around the word disagree

    2. Phil O'Sophical Silver badge
      Flame

      Re: "from well underneath the moon's surface"

      Where there's a well there must be water!

      Or oil & gas.

      1. Stoneshop Silver badge

        Re: "from well underneath the moon's surface"

        Or oil & gas.

        Well spotted.

        1. Paul Herber Silver badge

          Re: "from well underneath the moon's surface"

          Well spotting, just like camel spotting, but more exciting.

          1. werdsmith Silver badge

            Re: "from well underneath the moon's surface"

            Or ink. But it's getting rarer these days.

            Stairs. Feet, Royal Tunbridges.

  5. Blockchain commentard Silver badge

    "states shall avoid harmful contamination of space and celestial bodies.”

    So, there's no space junk around our planet then? No parachute/lander bits left on Mars? Hmmm.

    1. imanidiot Silver badge

      Plenty of junk left around. Earth is already well contaminated anyway, so we don't worry so much about it (less than we should probably). All the bits that end up on mars have gone through VERY extensive decontamination and sterilisation procedures, including things like the heat shields and parachutes that get jettisoned during the descent to the surface.

    2. Killing Time

      Smashing LCross into Cabeus crater, dropping Cassini into Saturn's atmosphere. Makes you wonder where the red lines are?

  6. Down not across Silver badge

    An undistinguished bar, yet the social center of Upper Sandusky.

    Doors marked "Ladies" and "Gents", lead, respectively northeast and northwest.

    You feel an urge.

    >

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Ohio hasn't changed all that much since 1936.

  7. MacroRodent Silver badge
    Alien

    Barsoom!

    I recall one of the Burroughs' Mars books I read as a schoolboy set much of the adventure on one of the Martian moons, I forget which. They were already known to be very small, so to get his story going, Burroughs invented a law of nature that caused everything approaching the moon to shrink appropriately.

    Let's see what happens to the Japanese probe...

    1. DJV Silver badge

      Re: Barsoom!

      Bonsai!

  8. jmch Silver badge

    space bookies

    "as long as the probability of taking a single, unsterilized particle, measuring no less than 10 nanometers in diameter, contains a single microbe is less than 0.000001 per cent"

    Who's setting those odds, though? Since we can say very little about the possibility of Martian microbes from whatever landers / rovers there, how are these odds estimated if not by basically making them up out of a bunch of assumptions?

    Reminds me of Feynman's assertion in the shuttle investigation that every layer of management at NASA had an order-of-magnitude lower estimate of failure possibility than the layer below. When the data is so sparse, probability calculations are hardly better than guesswork.

  9. STOP_FORTH
    Alien

    Theme Parks

    Michael Crichton wrote The Andromeda Strain. He also gave us Westworld and Jurassic Park. Did he witness something horrible in a theme park when he was a child?

    1. Rich 11 Silver badge

      Re: Theme Parks

      Maybe a clown told him the climate was changing and he was never comfortable with the concept thereafter.

      1. vtcodger Silver badge

        Re: Theme Parks

        Crichton was well aware of climate change and gained the emnity of climate change fanatics by writing "State of Fear" which used exaggerated claims of sea level rise as a plot device. The fact that the book was actually about constructing phony crises (e.g. Saddam Hussein's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction) completely escaped them. I don't recommend the book unless you need to occupy a few hours and the only alternative is something by Dan Brown or James Patterson. It's readable. But ... Thin plot. Too much polemic. Crichton wrote some good books, but even if you agree with the premise, State of Fear wasn't really one of them.

        Crichton's concerns about politization of science are probably better (and certainly more concisely) stated in his 2003 Cal Tech lecture "Aliens Cause Global Warming" https://stephenschneider.stanford.edu/Publications/PDF_Papers/Crichton2003.pdf

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Theme Parks

          I second the recommendation to read "Aliens Cause Global Warming". It's quite good.

          Michael Crichton was an excellent writer. He had some good books and bad, as all writers do. However "State Of Fear" was not that bad. It wasn't his best, but, certainly not as bad as you suggest. I found the book more interesting because of its impact. In the back he lists URLs leading to the documents he used for his research. United Nations sites, government sites, etc. There were many. Right after the book was published, those documents disappeared. Not just moved, removed from the net. He writes about this at the end of the paperback version of the book which came out about a year later. Pick it up or get it from the library and read it for yourself.

          And about Hussein's' "nonexistent weapons of mass destruction"... You put too much faith in the story as reported. Have friends in the right places and you'll find that they did indeed exist and were secreted out of the country to not embarrass the allies who had previously provided him the tech.

  10. Chris Hawkins
    Alien

    Phobos Phobias

    Hmm! Seems no one remembers last (& only) time in 1989 when Soviet Phobos II probe disappeared in strange circumstances.

  11. Chairman of the Bored Silver badge

    Heck no, it shouldn't go!

    I've played enough Doom to know that bad ship happens on Phobos! Where's my BFG-9000?

    1. Sgt_Oddball Silver badge
      Devil

      Re: Heck no, it shouldn't go!

      It's all fine until you start tinkering with teleporters.

      And anyways, surely everyone knows it should be a super-shotgun. Far more ammo available...

      Demon icon natch.

      1. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

        Re: Heck no, it shouldn't go!

        IDDQD and punch!

      2. P.B. Lecavalier
        Headmaster

        Re: Heck no, it shouldn't go!

        > bad ship happens on Phobos! Where's my BFG-9000?

        No BFG on Phobos, nor Deimos. Only introduced in Inferno episode.

        > surely everyone knows it should be a super-shotgun.

        Introduced in Doom II, therefore only available on Earth.

        Pedantic icon for a reason!

    2. Mystic Megabyte Silver badge
      Pirate

      Re: Heck no, it shouldn't go!

      The chainsaw never ran out of gas. Bonus was the excellent sound effects!

  12. batfink

    Correct approvals?

    Has this been cleared by amanfrommars?

    1. DJV Silver badge

      Re: Correct approvals?

      Well, they asked him - but decoding his reply back into English will take another couple of centuries...

  13. BebopWeBop Silver badge
    Devil

    Picking the nits

    Just to point out, they would be Chinese not Japanese if they were Mandarins

    1. STOP_FORTH
      Alien

      Re: Picking the nits

      Astro-mandarins are sentient fruits, currently living in Satsuma province in Japan.

      1. Sgt_Oddball Silver badge
        Coat

        Re: Picking the nits

        Pipped me to it...

      2. Semtex451 Silver badge

        Re: Picking the nits

        They are notorious for their poor treatment and rights violations of the Kumquat race in neighbouring Kinkan. I hope this improves soon in clement times.

        1. Rich 11 Silver badge

          Re: Picking the nits

          The future is bright -- the future is orange

          **connection dropped**

    2. Mark 85 Silver badge
      Coat

      Re: Picking the nits

      Manarins? So they're oranges?

      1. STOP_FORTH

        Re: Picking the nits

        Wait, Trump is orange, does that mean he is a mandarin?

        Or are universal affirmatives only partially convertible, as John Cleese might say?

  14. Anonymous South African Coward Silver badge

    Phobos Anomaly ring a bell?

    Where's the DOOM guy nowadays?

  15. Claptrap314 Bronze badge

    Arrogance in extreme

    What are the error bars on their 1e-6 probabilities? Anyone who takes whatever computations that came up with that number seriously is either an idiot or a pompous idiot. There is way, way to much that we just cannot know here.

  16. Mystic Megabyte Silver badge
    Alien

    We're doomed!

    What's going to happen when those Martian potatoes become sentient? <insert chip related joke here>

  17. Chris G Silver badge

    Die hard

    " Any life, however, would have to survive the impact of the collision, the aerodynamic heating of travelling to Phobos, and the heavy solar and cosmic radiation Phobos receives from outer space."

    So if they do find any life in the samples brought back to Earth, it's going to be bloody hard to kill.

    1. Voidstorm
      Alien

      Re: Die hard

      ... as seen in Species2. Until they figured out that sickle cell anemia was handy for killing the Mars Strain.

  18. DougS Silver badge

    Almost no gravity

    When a grandma could throw a ball at escape velocity, I wonder how they're going to get it to "drill" down rather than the drill just lifting the whole lander up like a jack?

    1. Kernel Silver badge

      Re: Almost no gravity

      A self-feeding drill, similar to an auger bit used for low speed drilling into wood?

  19. FozzyBear Silver badge
    Alien

    Marvin the Martian

    Is going to get seriously pissed if we keep screwing around with his home.

    Now where is my Alludium Pu-36, Explosive Space Modulator.

  20. herman Silver badge

    To infinity and beyond

    However, if it was infinitely improbable, then a whole slew of new possibilities would open up.

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