Mars samples from NASA missions may be contaminated

May 14th, 2009 - 12:37 pm ICT by ANI  

London, May 14 (ANI): A new report by the US National Research Council has said that if NASA aims to bring Mars samples back to Earth, it should prepare for the possibility that the samples could include organisms that might endanger humans and other terrestrial life.

According to a report in New Scientist, the report argues that to prevent potential contamination by any Martian life, NASA should begin building a secure facility on Earth to house the samples.

Within the next two decades, NASA hopes to launch a mission to Mars that could return the first pristine samples of Martian atmosphere, rocks and soil.

These samples could be used to perform tests that may be impossible with lightweight robotic explorers, such as definitively measuring rock ages and, potentially, finding the first evidence of Martian life.

But, the hazards such life might pose to terrestrial life are unknown.

If self-replicating organisms are brought back to Earth, there could be a slim but non-zero chance that they could infect Earth organisms or compete with them in a way that could affect Earth’s ecosystems.

The new report updates a long-standing recommendation that Mars samples be kept in isolation in a special facility while they are examined for life.

“I think the bottom line here is containment, containment, containment,” said Jack Farmer of Arizona State University in Tempe, who chaired the committee of 10 experts behind the report, which was commissioned by NASA.

“Such a facility would need to have stringent controls to contain agents that might be fatal to humans. It could take 7 to 10 years to build, so its design and construction should be considered at the earliest stages of Mars sample return mission planning,” the committee writes.

This report helps update the agency on the issue of contaminating Earth with extraterrestrial samples, or “back-contamination”, according to Cassie Conley, NASA’s planetary protection officer.

Conley said that it would be incorporated in future discussions at both NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), which is also considering a sample return mission. (ANI)

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