Survival of endospores of Bacillus subtilis on spacecraft surfaces under simulated martian environments: implications for the forward contamination of Mars

Icarus. 2003 Oct;165(2):253-76. doi: 10.1016/s0019-1035(03)00200-8.


Experiments were conducted in a Mars simulation chamber (MSC) to characterize the survival of endospores of Bacillus subtilis under high UV irradiation and simulated martian conditions. The MSC was used to create Mars surface environments in which pressure (8.5 mb), temperature (-80, -40, -10, or +23 degrees C), gas composition (Earth-normal N2/O2 mix, pure N2, pure CO2, or a Mars gas mix), and UV-VIS-NIR fluence rates (200-1200 nm) were maintained within tight limits. The Mars gas mix was composed of CO2 (95.3%), N2 (2.7%), Ar (1.7%), O2 (0.2%), and water vapor (0.03%). Experiments were conducted to measure the effects of pressure, gas composition, and temperature alone or in combination with Mars-normal UV-VIS-NIR light environments. Endospores of B. subtilis, were deposited on aluminum coupons as monolayers in which the average density applied to coupons was 2.47 x 10(6) bacteria per sample. Populations of B. subtilis placed on aluminum coupons and subjected to an Earth-normal temperature (23 degrees C), pressure (1013 mb), and gas mix (normal N2/O2 ratio) but illuminated with a Mars-normal UV-VIS-NIR spectrum were reduced by over 99.9% after 30 sec exposure to Mars-normal UV fluence rates. However, it required at least 15 min of Mars-normal UV exposure to reduce bacterial populations on aluminum coupons to non-recoverable levels. These results were duplicated when bacteria were exposed to Mars-normal environments of temperature (-10 degrees C), pressure (8.5 mb), gas composition (pure CO2), and UV fluence rates. In other experiments, results indicated that the gas composition of the atmosphere and the temperature of the bacterial monolayers at the time of Mars UV exposure had no effects on the survival of bacterial endospores. But Mars-normal pressures (8.5 mb) were found to reduce survival by approximately 20-35% compared to Earth-normal pressures (1013 mb). The primary implications of these results are (a) that greater than 99.9% of bacterial populations on sun-exposed surfaces of spacecraft are likely to be inactivated within a few tens of seconds to a few minutes on the surface of Mars, and (b) that within a single Mars day under clear-sky conditions bacterial populations on sun-exposed surfaces of spacecraft will be sterilized. Furthermore, these results suggest that the high UV fluence rates on the martian surface can be an important resource in minimizing the forward contamination of Mars.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Atmospheric Pressure
  • Bacillus subtilis / growth & development
  • Bacillus subtilis / physiology
  • Bacillus subtilis / radiation effects*
  • Containment of Biohazards*
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Radiation
  • Dust
  • Environmental Microbiology
  • Equipment Contamination
  • Exobiology
  • Mars*
  • Space Simulation*
  • Spacecraft*
  • Spores, Bacterial / growth & development
  • Spores, Bacterial / radiation effects
  • Sunlight
  • Temperature
  • Time Factors
  • Ultraviolet Rays*


  • Dust