Slow degradation of ATP in simulated martian environments suggests long residence times for the biosignature molecule on spacecraft surfaces on Mars

Andrew C. Schuerger, Patricia Fajardo-Cavazos, Christopher A. Clausen, John E. Moores, Peter H. Smith, Wayne L. Nicholson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

54 Scopus citations


Prelaunch planetary protection protocols on spacecraft are designed to reduce the numbers and diversity of viable bioloads on surfaces in order to mitigate the forward contamination of planetary surfaces. In addition, there is a growing appreciation that prelaunch spacecraft cleaning protocols will be required to reduce the levels of biogenic signature molecules on spacecraft to levels that will not compromise life-detection experiments on landers. The biogenic molecule, adenosine triphosphate (ATP) was tested for long-term stability under simulated Mars surface conditions of high UV flux, low temperature, low pressure, Mars atmosphere, and clear-sky dust loading conditions. Data on UV-induced ATP degradation rates were then extrapolated to a diversity of global conditions using a radiative transfer model for UV on Mars. The UV-induced degradation of ATP tested at 4.1 W m-2 UVC (200-280 nm), -10 °C, 7.1 mb, 95% CO2 gas composition, and an atmospheric opacity of τ = 0.1 yielded a half-life for ATP of 1342 kJ m-2; or extrapolated to approximately 22 sols on equatorial Mars with an atmospheric opacity of τ = 0.5. Temperature was found to moderately affect ATP degradation rates under martian conditions; tests at -80 or 20 °C yielded ATP half-lives of 2594 or 1183 kJ m-2, respectively. The ATP degradation rates reported here are over 10 orders of magnitude slower than the UV-induced biocidal rates reported in the literature on the inactivation of strongly UV-resistant bacterial spores from Bacillus pumilus SAFR-032 [Schuerger, A.C., Richards, J.T., Newcombe, D.A., Venkateswaran, K.J., 2006. Icarus 181, 52-62]. Extrapolating results to global Mars conditions, residence times for a 99% reduction of ATP on spacecraft surfaces ranged from 158 sols on Sun-exposed surfaces to approximately 32,000 sols for the undersides of landers similar to Viking. However, spacecraft materials greatly affected the survival times of ATP under martian conditions. Stainless steel was found to enhance the UV degradation of ATP by over 2 orders of magnitude compared to ATP-doped iridited aluminum, graphite, and astroquartz coupons. Extrapolating these results to global conditions, ATP on stainless steel might be expected to persist between 2 and 320 sols for upper and lower surfaces of landers. Liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry data supported the conclusion that UV irradiation acted to remove the γ-phosphate group from ATP, and no evidence was observed for the UV-degradation of d-ribose or adenine moieties. Long residence times for ATP on spacecraft materials under martian conditions suggest that prelaunch cleaning protocols may need to be strengthened to mitigate against possible ATP contamination of life-detection experiments on Mars landers.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)86-100
Number of pages15
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2008


  • Astrobiology
  • Mars
  • Photochemistry
  • Regoliths
  • Solar radiation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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