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Monday, December 05, 2022

Life on Mars could infect Earth

For many years, the robotic return of ancient samples from the surface of Mars has been the holy grail ambition of Red Planet researchers.

At the time, strategies to return Mars collectibles ranged from “grab-and-go” surface acquisition to dust collection in the atmosphere to scientific selection on the planet by specially equipped robots – a task that NASA’s Persistence rover, currently located at Jezero Crater, did. Moving around, now undertaking.

NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) are now coordinating the Mars Sample Return (MSR) campaign to collect geological and atmospheric samples collected by Perseverance and return them to Earth in the early 2030s .

Sending Martian bits and pieces to Earth is a daunting and multi-billion dollar task. If our planet receives material that could contain life on Mars, it is considered a matter of “low risk” in terms of ecological and public safety – but this risk is not zero.

The idea of ​​bringing stuff back from the Red Planet may resonate with some as a reality replay of Michael Crichton’s 1969 novel “The Andromeda Strain,” which was made into the 1971 sci-fi film that described Earth as infected. dramatized the idea of ​​alien creatures. ,

high anxiety
Could Mars samples be the biological “hot property” fueling public concern about creepy-crawlies from that world away from Earth’s biosphere?

For its part, NASA recently requested public comments on the scope of a draft environmental impact statement for the agency’s proposed MSR efforts. That report is currently scheduled to be released for public comment later this year.

For NASA, scientific study of Mars’ rock, dirt and atmosphere could answer an important question: Did life ever exist on the Red Planet? “Only by bringing back the samples can we really answer the question, using the most sophisticated, state-of-the-art laboratories, at a time when future generations can study them using techniques not yet invented.”

less likely
Over the past few decades, several different panels of scientific experts from the United States and around the world have addressed the question of whether samples from Mars could pose a threat to Earth’s biosphere. “These panels report the extremely low probability that strongly explored samples, such as those collected from regions on Mars, could potentially be a biological threat to our biosphere,” the NASA MSR fact sheet said.

But there’s also the potential issue of further contamination to Mars – carrying Earth’s life to that globe and, potentially, spoiling the nest with its own biota. bioburden

In October 2021, a Space Studies Board report from the prestigious US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine identified criteria that could allow robotic missions to certain locations on Mars with less restrictive “bioburden” requirements. are designed to prevent The unintentional transport of Earth-based microbes to Mars. At NASA’s request, a Committee on Planetary Security wrote the consensus study report “Evaluating Bioburden Requirements for Mars Missions”, identifying criteria to determine whether robotic missions to certain regions of Mars meet less stringent bioburden requirements. can be subordinated.

As the committee reported, harsh conditions on most of Mars’ surface, including an ultraviolet radiation environment, a lack of persistent liquid water, and humidity and temperature cycles, “make the existence, growth, and spread of terrestrial organisms on the surface likely.” Not there.” However, the report also states that Earth organisms transported to the surface of Mars may be able to survive and may be transported by wind or robotic devices to certain areas of the Martian subsurface where such organisms can grow can grow further.

These below-surface areas include caves where water ice deposits and salt and brine deposits may be present, and deep subsurface, where underground aquifers are hypothesized to exist. “These regions may also be where evidence of indigenous Martian organisms is likely to be found,” the report’s authors wrote. be careful

Some researchers and exploration advocates may assume that any Earth microbes that travel to Mars with rovers, landers and their landing gear will be quickly killed by the harsh atmosphere of the Red Planet’s surface. But it is not necessary, said John Rummel, former and founding chair of the Panel on Planetary Protection of the Space Research Committee, an international conference of experts. He previously served as the Space Agency’s Senior Scientist for Astronomy and NASA’s Planetary Protection Officer at NASA Headquarters (1986 to 1993 and 1998 to 2008).

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  • Life on Mars could infect Earth
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