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The Quarantine And Certification Of Martian Samples

Upper figure: Modern magnetotactic bacteria, one showing a chain of magnetite crystals, as seen in the backscattered scanning electron microscope. Lower figure: Magnetite crystals and chains of magnetite crystals in the Martian meteorite ALH84001 in the backscattered scanning electron microscope.. One conspicuous chain indicated by arrows. The diameter of a single crystal ia approximately one-millionth of an inch.
  • Scientists Find Evidence of Ancient Microbial Life on Mars
  • by Barry E. DiGregorio
    Middleport - May 31, 2001
    The Space Studies Board of the National Research Council released its new report concerning the Mars Sample Return project entitled "The Quarantine And Certification Of Martian Samples".

    Focused on giving NASA a push to start building an appropriate Level 4 biohazard containment facility before Martian samples are returned to Earth, the report fails to address the fact that you must first have a reliable Mars Sample Return container -- something far from demonstrated and something the late Dr. Carl Sagan doubted could ever be devised.

    Sagan once explained to JPL engineers that if they were so certain they could make a safe Mars sample return container then why not put living Anthrax germs inside it, launch it into space, then return the capsule on a course exactly like the Mars Sample Return capsule would.

    Then if the capsule survived the launch, the trip into space and the journey back intact -- the capsule could be taken to the appropriate Level 4 biohazard containment facility to see if all the planetary protection protocols worked as planned.

    The engineers labeled Sagan an alarmist and extremist for his viewpoints on planetary protection.

    NASA's sole contender for a Mars Sample Return capsule is "The Catchers Mit" approach. NASA intends to return Mars soil samples in a basketball-sized container that will enter Earth's atmosphere without a parachute and impact a predetermined area in the Utah desert for pickup by awaiting specially trained biohazard troops.

    This design, officially known as Passive Earth Entry Capsule depends on everything working perfectly as planned. However, as NASA's loss of four Mars probes in 1999 prove -- there are no guarantee's when it comes to planetary exploration, things can and do go wrong.

    When you are talking about possibly returning living pathogenic organisms from Mars to our planet, you must first eliminate the possibility they will do any harm.

    Anything less is completely irresponsible. The only way to do this is by years of dedicated life sciences studies, not on Earth, but on Mars with robots. The International Committee Against Mars Sample Return opposes NASA's "Catchers Mit" approach but firmly supports a full life sciences survey of the surface of Mars.

    Strong but non-conclusive evidence of living Martian microorganisms has been published in peer reviewed scientific journals such as Science, The Journal of Geophysical Research and Icarus.

    These peer reviewed scientific papers by Dr. Gilbert V. Levin and Dr. Patricia Ann Straat have not been referencened by the Space Studies Board in their previous reports about Mars Sample Return.

    However this new report finally makes a brief mention of one of Levin and Straat's scientific papers.

    If there is even a one-in-a-million possibility that Levin and Straat are correct about life on Mars, then one has to ask why the Space Studies Board would not consider this body of work a part of the Mars Sample Return equation? Scientific evidence is scientific evidence, you cannot simply ignore it because it is convenient.

    The Apollo lunar quarantine program should serve as a warning that building a fancy and expensive Level 4 biohazard containment facility does not mean a damn thing if the samples are let loose before they get there!

    Although $16 million dollars was spent designing the Lunar Receiving Lab specifically for isolating the lunar rocks and preventing any possible germs from escaping to our biosphere, the Apollo 11 capsule door was opened in the Pacific Ocean against established planetary protection protocols.

    Had there been any alien microbes in lunar soil that could have harmed Earth -- the moment the capsule door was opened lunar dust was swept into the warm Pacific waters.

    The Level 4 biohazard facility the SSB recommends NASA build for Martian samples will probably cost in excess of $800 million dollars or more. Why not instead use this money to send additional life sciences experiments to Mars and elucidate on what Levin and Straat found with Viking in 1976?

    Many scientists feel this is the best way to study life on Mars anyway in-situ-- in their own habitat. By looking for life on Mars there is no danger to the Earth nor any contamination problems (except for Mars if we do not properly sterilize our spacecraft).

    I suppose it would be a bit too much to hope that NASA would forget spending the money on an Earth-based Martian biohazard rock laboratory and instead consider setting up a science outpost on the Moon? Aside from being an incredible astronomical observatory, the Moon could serve as an excellent extraterrestrial biohazard examination facility.

    Samples from Mars, Jupiter's moons, Titan and even comets could all be thoroughly studied there for any harmful pathogens before sending them Earthward.

    Furthermore, if Martian life in all of its niches is found to be harmless (something that could take years of work) -- then the Moon would make the perfect launching platform for an eventual manned mission to Mars and other planets.

    A scientific outpost on the moon could serve as a catalyst for public excitement and support for space again. Telling the public you might be returning deadly microbes from Mars to an expensive and specially designed Level 4 biohazard containment facility on Earth is not going to inspire anyone, except for some geologists who have convinced themselves that Mars is a sterile planet.

    Barry E. DiGregorio is the executive director for ICAMSR

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    Prepare Now For Martian Samples Warns Scientists
    Washington - May 29, 2001
    Work on a quarantine facility must begin soon if it is to be ready in time for spacecraft returning to Earth with martian rocks and soil in tow, says a new report from the National Academies' National Research Council.


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