Science

There is growing debate over whether Mars samples endanger Earth

In less than 10 years, a Martian spacecraft could rock the Earth and unload valuable cargo. The rocks, soil, and even air samples of the Red Planet are sought after by an army of small researchers here for signs of alien life. Terra farm. This fast-paced, multi-billion dollar company, organized by NASA and the European Space Agency, is officially Mars sample return The (MSR) campaign is the closest thing to the Holy Grail that planetary scientists have ever pursued.

In many respects, MSR is already on track: NASA’s Perseverance Rover is moving around An ancient delta on the Jezero Crater on Mars. We are collecting selections that may be of astrobiological interest for future pickup by the “fetch rover”. Next, the Mars ascending vehicle was designed and tested, and these recovered samples were put into orbit, and the subsequent ferry to Earth is proceeding smoothly. However, one of the key aspects of the project remains unresolved with problems. How accurate do you need to process the returned sample? How much does it cost given the potential risk of somehow contaminating the Earth’s biosphere with imported Martian insects?

So far elusive answers to these questions could deeply shape the expected follow-up of sending humans to the surface of Mars, not just MSR. Can astronauts live and work there without inadvertently bringing Earth’s microbes to the Red Planet? And perhaps more importantly, can they eventually go home with the conviction that they don’t have a microscopic Martian hitchhiker? The protocol set out for MSR will be an important factor in solving these final problems.

Dangerous business

NASA’s current proposal for MSR requires an unconstructed interplanetary ferry to release a capsule (called the Earth Invasion System) packed with conical samples above the Earth’s atmosphere. It has been. The capsule then withstands a violent plunge into Earth without a parachute and eventually lands on a dry lake bed within the Utah Test and Training Range. Despite the impact of about 150 km / h, the capsule is designed to keep the sample intact and isolated. Once collected, they are placed in their own environmentally friendly protective container and shipped to an offsite sample receiving facility. Such facilities could resemble today’s biolabs studying highly infectious pathogens, incorporating multi-layer decontamination measures, air filtration systems, negative pressure ventilation, and a myriad of other protective measures.

Citing the findings of a panel of experts, NASA currently considers the ecological and public security risks of this proposal to be “very low.” But not everyone agrees.Earlier this year, the space agency called for public commentary on the relevant draft environmental impact statement and netted it. 170 remarksMost of them were negative about the concept of direct express mail to Earth for Martian collections.

“Are you crazy? Not only is there no hell,” one commentator suggested. “No country should endanger the entire planet,” another said. And another one-third states: [NASA’s] The intent extends beyond the smaller space community. Many of the respondents suggested that the specimens should be shipped first and then investigated outside the globe. This is certainly a wise, but logistic and budgetary nightmare approach.

Compare this with the candid opinion of Stephen Benner, a prominent astrobiologist and founder of the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Alachua, Florida. “Planet,” he says. This is because space rock that collides with Mars routinely releases matter that will eventually reach Earth. Current estimates are that about 500 kilograms of Martian rock land on our planet each year, Benner says. He even has a 5 gram mass of Mars decorating his desk, hinting at that fact.

“In the more than 3.5 billion years since life appeared on Earth, trillions of other rocks have made similar journeys,” says Benner. “If Martian microbiota exists and can cause havoc in the Earth’s biosphere, it’s already happening, and a few kilograms from NASA make no difference.”

Benner noted his service in many of the exact same expert panels that NASA cites for a “very low” assessment of MSR risk, and space agencies are caught up in their own public relations trap. It seems to be. About what should be considered a really simple and calm science. NASA now knows “how to find life on Mars, where to look for life on Mars, why you are likely to find life on Mars”. “But the NASA Commission is supporting science in support of these non-problematic discussions, seeking consensus and compatibility on the basics of chemistry, biology, and planetary science that must drive the exploration of life on Mars. “Replace”, unnecessarily increasing costs and delaying the start of the mission.

“They will ensure that NASA never skips life-detecting missions,” says Benner.

credit: NASA / JPL-California Institute of Technology

Attention cost

Such statements reflect a growing sense of urgency among US planetary scientists about achieving MSR. In April, NASA received the latest decade of research on planetary science and astrobiology. This is an influential report produced by the National Academy of Science and Technology Medicine, which sets out the near-future priorities of this area. One of the report’s main recommendations is to strengthen the agency’s plans to process MSR samples, with a focus on preparing the Mars sample receiving facility to receive material from the Red Planet by 2031. I am asking for.

To meet that deadline, NASA must begin designing and constructing such a facility immediately, Philip Christensen, a professor at Arizona State University and co-chair of the steering committee of the new 10-year study. Says.

“Our recommendation was to go out and build a very luxurious, very complex and very equipment-rich receiving facility,” says Kristensen. “Instead, keep it as simple as possible. The best job is to make sure the sample is safe and then send it to laboratories around the world that already have very advanced equipment.”

John Rammel, a now retired astrobiologist who previously led NASA’s “planetary protection” efforts for interplanetary missions, saves time with simplicity, but the costs are uncertain. I agree with you. “No one wants to spend all the money in the world on the Taj Mahal. [sample-return] “Science,” he says. However, building the minimum required facilities can be backfired by not allowing scientists to properly investigate whether the returned sample contains evidence of life. I have.

More fundamentally, Rammel says that it is simply not true that Mars has sufficient knowledge to quantify the risk of MSR for interplanetary infections. “We don’t know everything we want to know about Mars in the first place, so we need a sample,” says Rummel. “We continue to find creatures on Earth doing very interesting new things in terms of potential life elsewhere. So don’t you think the answer is, don’t you think? As repeatedly emphasized by the public, we need to be careful. [Academies]…. People need to have some respect for the unknown. If you have that respect, you can do a credible job, and the public is fully served by your attention. “

All together now

The true risk of MSR to interplanetary ecological disasters may be unclear, but the threat posed by negative public opinion to the mission is clear to most participating scientists. Still, engagement with the general public should be welcomed, says Penny Boston, an astrobiologist at NASA’s Ames Research Center. What is a better way than getting people interested in a topic and its important interests in order to carry out the research needed to fill the knowledge gap in planetary protection? “This allows us to take full advantage of the analysis of Martian samples to answer scientific questions while optimally protecting both the Earth’s biosphere and humans,” says Boston.

Similarly, the chilling effect of strict handling restrictions on MSR samples seems more likely than the occurrence of another-world pandemics with loose biosafety protocols, but with caution from an absolute budget perspective. Some argue that it doesn’t cost much.

According to astrobiologist Cathy Conley, who took over Rammel as NASA’s planetary protection officer from 2006 to 2017, by the time MSR capsules hit the dry lake bottom of Utah, “taxpayers will have these samples. We will invest at least $ 10 billion to bring it to Earth, so to study these samples while ensuring that nothing bad happens to the only planet we can live in. Isn’t it worth spending 1% more to build the best possible facilities and equipment? “

However, there is another concern that complicates the discussion. That is, MSR is no longer alone in searching for fresh red planetary rocks, and other projects may not follow the rules that are still emerging. China recently announced its own plans to bring Mars material directly to Earth, perhaps earlier than the NASA / ESA Mars sample return campaign. There is also a “wildcard” of SpaceX’s efforts focused on Mars in Elon Musk, which will lead to a human voyage to Mars. And it will come back much faster than most experts would expect.

China’s entry in particular is worried about astrobiologist Barry Digregorio, the founding director of the International Commission on Mars Sample Returns (ICAMSR). “Otherwise [returning samples from Mars] It is not a national goal, but a global effort to share findings in real time with all space-flight countries. No country knows what other countries have found or what problems they have with containment, “he says.

Therefore, DiGregorio argues that prioritizing the elimination of the potential for all samples to harm the Earth’s biosphere before returning it to Earth. This is best done at a dedicated space station or at the Astrobiology Institute, which was built as part of the Moonbase. .. “Of course,” he adds. Given the ever-increasing global geopolitical tensions, “this concept will not sell well”, but now is the “important time” to consider it.

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/controversy-grows-over-whether-mars-samples-endanger-earth/ There is growing debate over whether Mars samples endanger Earth

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