NASA says its plan to bring Mars samples back to Earth is safe, but some people are worried

NASA says its plan to bring Mars samples back to Earth is safe, but some people are worried


Credit: Pixabay/CC0 Public domain

Since September, the Perseverance rover has been raking along an ancient river delta on Mars, its robotic arms reaching out with whirling steel drill bits to dig up rocks, dig up soil and suck small amounts of the Earth’s atmosphere. red planet in titanium tubes.

The plan, under the aegis of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, calls for a symphony of sci-fi technology that includes launching another vehicle to Mars to bring the unsterilized samples back to Earth, deposit the samples in the Utah and transport them to a yet-to-be-built secure facility by 2033.

There, scientists will begin testing for signs of ancient microbial life from around 35 samples weighing a total of around one pound. The goal is also to understand the geology and climate of the planet, as well as to prepare to one day set foot on the red planet.

But the plan has given some members of the public who attended a public hearing on the plan a bit of intragalactic turmoil, especially in light of the recent pandemic. This includes a retired Federal Aviation Administration engineer in South Jersey who wonders what problems an unsterilized microbe from Mars might present.

NASA Mars Sample Return Mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA is conducting its Mars sample return mission with the European Space Agency and calling it one of the most significant missions it has undertaken.

“We also believe this is the next logical step in our quest to eventually land humans on the surface of Mars,” Thomas Zurbuchen, astrophysicist and chief scientist at NASA, said in a public presentation. virtual in May. Samples taken from the ancient Jezero River delta “are considered the best opportunity to reveal the early evolution of Mars, including the potential” for life, Zurbuchen said.

Read: NASA explains mission to bring soil, rock and atmosphere samples from Mars back to Earth

“Low probability of risk”

Some members of the public have questioned the remote possibility that anything in these samples could be alive or pose a biohazard. They also wonder if China, which has announced a similar project, and private companies will have safeguards as rigorous as NASA. Elon Musk has been excited about his company Space X’s plans to explore Mars, although there is no timeline.

Public comment on NASA’s initial submission is now closed, but a draft environmental impact statement on the mission is expected in the fall with another chance for the public to weigh in.,

The environmental impact statement will examine implications for Earth and Mars regarding “recovery efforts with respect to natural, biological, and cultural resources” and “impacts on the human and natural environment associated with the loss of containment of the materials from Mars samples”.

“Even if the risk is minimal”

Some people are nervous because NASA can’t say with 100% certainty that it won’t bring back something alive or dangerous. Some of May’s 170 commenters identified themselves as scientists, doctors or professionals. Others remained anonymous.

One commenter wrote that any samples should be “studied off-world and remotely due to the risk of planetary contamination. Even if the risk is minimal, nothing above a 0% chance should be brought back to Earth” .

Another wrote that “NASA should NOT bring back samples from Mars until we know more about the impact of these samples on our safety on this planet. Test first for bacteria that could harm our health.”

Thomas Dehel, of Gloucester Township, Camden County, was one of many commentators. Retired from the Federal Aviation Administration, Dehel holds a master’s degree in electrical engineering as well as a law degree. Although not affiliated with the mission, he is a Mars enthusiast and operates a website dedicated to the mission.

He wants NASA to continue, but he too has concerns.

“We won’t know if it’s sterile or not,” Dehel said. “That’s my biggest point. We should know if we’re bringing something back to Earth, whether it’s sterile or not, to do some kind of rough test beforehand to see if there’s any kind of biological life.”

NASA counters that pre-sterilizing samples could destroy valuable information, such as past life biosignatures. Others ask why the samples can’t first be brought to the International Space Station and examined. NASA says the space station, which is expected to be decommissioned in 2031, lacks the sophisticated equipment needed for testing.

Dehel is curious why NASA put notices announcing the May hearings in just two newspapers, one in Florida and one in Utah. The agency says these logs are in two key areas where the mission will take place: takeoff and landing. Either way, Dehel said the public was largely unaware, leading to low turnout for two public virtual presentations in May.

Dehel and others cite the work of Gilbert Levin, a scientist who worked as a principal investigator for a life-detection experiment on NASA’s Viking mission to Mars in 1976. Levin was also named a researcher for the mission back from samples on Mars, but died in 2021 at age 97.

Levin has long maintained that the tests were positive for life after Viking landers injected a nutrient solution containing radioactive carbon-14 onto the surface of Mars. The belief was that any living organism would emit the isotope as part of digestion. Levin said it happened at two locations, 4,000 miles apart.

Dehel questions the possibility of bringing back a pathogen that humans are not prepared to defend.

NASA, however, countered that Levin had found “a substance mimicking life, but not life.” Indeed, the scientists say there are other explanations for Levin’s findings given that they now know much more about the chemical and mineral makeup of Martian soil.

“Vestiges of a Past Life”

Mars has a thin layer of atmosphere composed mostly of carbon dioxide and is considered hostile to life. But it was very different in the past when it was believed that water flowed over its surface and a thicker atmosphere would have kept the surface warmer than the current average temperature of -81 degrees, with lows at -220 degrees.

Nathan Yee, a Rutgers professor who teaches an astrobiology class and has worked with NASA, agrees that it’s unlikely anything is alive at or near the surface where Perseverance collects its samples.

Yee said intense UV radiation was bombarding Mars. UV radiation kills microbes by breaking down their DNA. Indeed, UV sterilizers are used on Earth to kill bacteria in aquariums and drinking water. You can buy portable UV sanitizers for home use.

And unlike Earth, Mars lacks magnetic fields capable of deflecting solar winds that also carry particles with dangerous amounts of radiation.

Overall, Yee said it would be very difficult for life to survive in these conditions. And NASA maintains that meteorites from Mars landed on Earth “without any adverse effect on our biosphere”.

Lee said that even if microbes are found alive, they are unlikely to pose a threat.

“There has to be a long, very long period of evolution for microbes to learn how to interact and attach themselves to animal cells, enter animal cells, and use the machinery of an animal cell to replicate” , Yee said. “It’s a very complex choreographed dance.”

However, Yee said it was possible that samples contained “remains of past lives”. He also said recent data suggests Mars’ deep underground contains liquid water and could harbor life.

More intriguingly, Yee asks: what will NASA do in the slim chance that it finds life in a sample?

NASA explains mission to bring soil, rock and atmosphere samples from Mars back to Earth

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