As NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover continues its slow but steady trek across the Red Planet’s landscape, Space agency scientists are pondering the best way to use the robot to search for water. The one consideration that is causing NASA to consider the matter carefully is the desire not to introduce microbes that might be lurking in the rover to an environment where they might thrive.

Scientists suspect that billions of years ago, Mars was a warm, wet world with a thick atmosphere, possibly with thriving life forms.

But, over the eons, the air leached away into space along with much of the water. What is left of the water is either underground or ensconced at the Martian poles. Whatever life may still exist would be microbes, hiding away in sheltered habitats.

NASA’s desire to keep Mars pure of any Earth organisms is not merely an OCD desire to preserve the Martian environment. Where the Mars water flows, the remnants of Martian life may reside. The space agency is keen to make sure that if future explorers find Martian microbes that they are, in fact, native to the Red Planet and not transplants from Earth that somehow latched onto the Mars Curiosity and survived the long voyage across interplanetary space.

The plan currently is for Mars Curiosity to climb steadily up the slopes of Mount Sharp, a formation comprised of sedimentary rock, thus formed and shaped over billions of years of water flow. The rover should be able to image dark streaks that have been noted on the slopes of the mountain to give scientists a better understanding of whether surface water still occasionally flows on Mars. How close NASA considers it safe for Mars Curiosity to get to these possible sources of water have yet to be determined.

The goal is to steady these potential sources of water over time and ascertain whether any changes take place that might indicate the seepage of water from subsurface sources and to rule out other possible causes, such as dry avalanches.

Mars Curiosity landed on Mars on August 6, 2012. It has since been the most successful surface mission on the Red Planet in history. A decision is pending as to whether to extend its mission in the next several months.

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