Earth Isn't Ready for What We've Collected on Mars

A high-containment lab, unlike any currently in existence, has to be built
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 24, 2022 4:00 PM CDT
Earth Isn't Ready for What We've Collected on Mars
This 2003 image made available by NASA shows Mars as it lines up with the sun and Earth.   (NASA/J. Bell - Cornell U./M. Wolff - SSI via AP, File)

Last week brought the news that NASA's Perseverance rover had collected four "scientifically compelling" rock samples from Mars' Jezero Crater, in a location where a river and lake came together eons ago. It's a major move forward in the search for ancient life on Mars, though those specimens won't make it back to Earth until the 2030s—and there's lots to do on this planet between now and then. In a fascinating piece for the New York Times, Sarah Scoles digs into the non-zero chance that what we bring back from Mars could harbor organisms that could wreak havoc here, causing a "Martian plague" as her title suggests. It's a novel problem. Yes, moon dust and asteroid and comet samples have been studied on Earth, but NASA believes the risk of reverse contamination from Mars is sharply higher.

As such, samples coming to us from that planet need to be treated differently. A new Sample Receiving Facility will be constructed—no existing labs on Earth are up to snuff—an undertaking that could easily take until the 2030s. One quirk: the Martian materials can't contaminate the Earth, and nothing on Earth can contaminate the substances (doing so could lead to false conclusions about Martian life). Here's one example of how challenging that will be, per Scoles: "NASA needs both positive-pressure space to keep the samples clean and negative-pressure space to keep the samples contained. It is hard to integrate those conditions into the same physical space. ... No lab on Earth has done it at the scale Mars Sample Return requires because no lab has ever needed to." (Read the full piece here.)

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