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Study: Lasers Used To Identify Spacesuit Contamination

With sights set on a manned mission to Mars, the idea of astronauts taking a walk on the red planet is something scientists have to prepare for. The search for life on planets like Mars could be increasingly complicated by a manned mission, because microbes or signs of life from Earth could be transported to new environments on the astronauts’ space suits. So, researchers have been working on the problem of spacesuit contamination using microscopic fluorescent tracers and lasers to test spacesuit simulations.

Part of the Austrian Space Forum’s PolAres program (which runs from 2007-2012,) researchers held mock Mars missions using spacesuit simulators in the San Rafael desert in Utah. Led by Gernot Groemer, president of the Austrian Space Forum, the contamination experiments also work in reverse to make sure that no particles from Mars get transported back on the space suits.

This type of research is significant because it will ensure that all data accumulated from a manned Mars mission would be accurate, and if anything particularly astrobiologically or geochemically significant is discovered researchers can be confident that it is indigenous to Mars.

The experiments used the L.I.F.E (laser-induced-fluorescence emission) techniques, which have previously been used in tests of the Mars Rovers to determine how they could pick up organic molecules on Mars. For the experiments, a test suit was exposed to fluorescent particles, and then a laser pointer was used to identify the location of the particles. Digital photography was used to capture images of the fluorescence which were then analyzed and compared to the fluorescent signatures of known organic and inorganic molecules.

According to researchers, the system takes only a few seconds to process the raw data and determine if an unknown sample has infiltrated or hitched a ride on a spacesuit. The simulations showed that anywhere from 60-405 bacteria per square centimeter can gather on a previously clean spacesuit in minutes. The ability to quickly detect contamination may be more beneficial than trying to safeguard against it because contaminants can be attached to dust that clings to spacesuits through the electrostatic forces between particles.

Vibration equipment failed to shake off the tiny particles during the Mars spacesuit simulation. So, future Mars walkers may need to rely on a high-voltage electric charge to levitate dust that clings to the suit so that a stream of air can then blow it away while in an airlock. Developing this type of technology could also shed some light on how to design astronaut living spaces to avoid dust particles from getting into the breathing systems.

(via Photo via European Space Agency)

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