NASA says its Mars Curiosity Rover could start drilling for rock samples for the first time within the next couple months.
But, there could be a hiccup if Curiosity finds ice.
NASA requires tools that drill into ice to be sterile because they don’t want to risk transferring organisms from Earth to Mars.
Catharine Conley, a planetary protection officer at NASA, says Curiosity’s drill bits are clean – which is acceptable to drill into the ground, but they’re not sterile.
“If they happen to find ice, very unexpectedly, at Gale Crater, they won’t drill into it. They will talk to my office and I will get a team of scientists together and we’ll figure out whether there’s something that can be done to allow them to drill into ice," she said.
Leonard David of Space.Com first reported that the bits were contaminated last year before Curiosity ever left for space.
Conley says engineers were supposed to report to her before they opened the rover’s box of drill bits, took one out and placed it into the drill.
"If they had a rough landing, they were concerned - as I understand it - that they might not be able to get a drill bit out of the box so this way they already had one in the drill," she said. "They talked to me after they did it. It was a procedural problem, but not an actual violation."
Curiosity has been on the red planet for about a month. The mission's supposed to last two years. NASA's Conley says that because the Gale Crater site is at the equator of Mars, it's warm and it's not likely there will be ice there.
"They are fully compliant, so I don't have any concerns," she said. "I'm just watching to see the good science that they're getting out of it and if they happen to find ice, we'll talk."