December 17th, 1999

Zapping Mars Rocks with Gamma Rays Planetary Science Research Discoveries

Because we do not know what deadly microorganisms might be lurking inside samples returned from Mars, the samples will either have to be sterilized before release or kept in isolation until biological studies declare them safe. One way to execute microorganisms is with radiation, such as gamma rays. Although quite effective in snuffing out bacteria and viruses, gamma rays might also affect the mineralogical, chemical, and isotopic compositions of the zapped rocks and soils. Carl Allen (Lockheed Martin Space Operations, Houston) and a team of 18 other analysts tested the effect of gamma rays on rock and mineral samples like those we expect on Mars. Except for some darkening of some minerals, high doses of gamma rays had no significant effect on the rocks, making gamma radiation a feasible option for sterilizing samples returned from Mars.