Stowaway Molecules Could Taint Mars Results

Microscopic hitchhikers might provide false evidence in search for life
By Nick McMaster,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 5, 2008 4:10 PM CDT
This image released Wednesday, June 4, 2008, from NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander, shows material from the Martian surface captured by the robotic arm scoop on Tuesday June 3, 2008.   (AP Photo)
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(Newser) – Missions searching for signs of life on Mars could be fooled by organic molecules that hitched a ride from Earth, a new study suggests. University of Florida researchers using simulated Martian conditions found that ATP, an energy-storing molecule fundamental to terrestrial life, could survive the trip and hang around for months or years on NASA equipment, LiveScience reports.

"It turned out that under normal equatorial Mars conditions, the ATP was a lot more stable than we anticipated," said the lead researcher. The finding is troubling because the discovery of ATP on Mars would be seen as major evidence of extraterrestrial life. Prelaunch cleaning protocols may need to beefed up.