Covid-19 virus illustration.
Credit: CDC/Science Photo Library

The Red Planet as seen by Europe’s Mars Express.
Credit: ESA/D. O’Donnell – CC BY-SA IGO

UAE’s Hope Mars orbiter.
Credit: Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Center

China’s three-in-one mission: An orbiter, lander, and rover.
Credit: Wan, W.X., Wang, C., Li, C.L. et al.

NASA’s Perseverance rover.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


Now en route to Mars is China’s Tianwen-1 probe. Joining that long march to the Red Planet is the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Hope orbiter. Lastly, NASA’s Perseverance rover is ready for sendoff on July 30th.

In readying this trio of spacecraft, engineers and test technicians endured the COVID-19 crisis. Indeed, the pandemic greatly complicated each spacecraft’s journey to their respective launch pads.

Forward contamination

Is there any worry about sending the coronavirus to the surface of Mars?

Even the UAE’s orbiter could experience a troubled insertion into Mars orbit, plowing into the Red Planet – Earth to Mars forward contamination.

For an answer, I asked noted astrobiologist, Penny Boston, Senior Advisor for Science Integration at NASA’s Ames Research Center.




Viruses are fragile

“COVID 19 is a virus. It only infects the cells of mammals or birds, as is true of all coronaviruses. To my knowledge, no mammals or birds are currently on their way to Mars…or about to be on their way to Mars. Viruses don’t successfully hang out in rocks or etc., they require living hosts. Viruses are far more fragile than bacteria, not to mention extremophile bacteria,” Boston responded.

“The ionizing radiation environment of the Martian surface will be highly effective at ripping apart the puny single stranded RNA of Covid-19 with its thin protein coat,” Boston added. “Ionizing radiation will thoroughly penetrate through all of the spacecraft on Mars or going to Mars. Therefore, there is essentially a zero chance of viruses remaining intact in the Mars environment, including on the inside of spacecraft.”

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