In less than a decade, a spacecraft from Mars could slip near Earth to drop a precious cargo: samples of rocks, soil and even the air of the Red Planet that would look for signs of extraterrestrial life by a small army of explorers right here on our Terra firma. Led by NASA and the European Space Agency, it is a fast-growing multibillion-dollar enterprise formally known as Return of the Mars sample The company (MSR) is the closest to the Holy Grail that planetary scientists have ever sought.
In many ways, MSR is already in full swing: NASA The Perseverance rover is spinning the ancient river delta in the Martian crater of the Lake, which collects specimens of potential astrobiological interest for future “rover rotation” selections. This is followed by the development and testing of the Mars Ascent Vehicle to lift these samples into orbit for subsequent shipment to Earth. But one important aspect of the project remains unsettlingly unresolved: How exactly to deal with returned samples and at what cost, given the potential risk of somehow polluting the Earth’s biosphere with imported Martian beetles?
The hitherto elusive answers to these questions could profoundly shape not only the MSR but also the expected further sending of humans to the surface of Mars. Can astronauts live and work there without inadvertently bringing terrestrial microbes to the Red Planet? And perhaps more importantly, can they eventually return home with the confidence that they don’t have microscopic Martian hitchhikers? Protocols developed for MSRs will be a critical component in addressing these possible challenges.
NASA’s current proposal for MSR involves the creation of an as-yet-unbuilt interplanetary ferry to produce a cone-shaped capsule with samples, called the system of entry into Earth, high above the atmosphere of our planet. The capsule will then withstand a fiery descent to Earth without a parachute, eventually landing in a dry lake lodge within the Utah test and training ground. Despite the impact of approximately 150 kilometers per hour, the capsule will be designed so that the samples are kept intact and isolated. Once recovered, it will be placed in its own protective container, which is monitored by the environment and then sent to a sampling point. Such a facility may resemble modern biolabs that study highly infectious agents, including multilayer decontamination measures, air filtration systems, negative pressure ventilation, and many other protection measures.
Citing the findings of numerous expert groups, NASA currently considers the environmental and public safety risks of this proposal to be “extremely low”. But not everyone agrees. Earlier this year, the space agency requested public comments on the relevant draft statement on the impact on the environment, the network 170 commentsmost of which were negative about the concept of express mail directly to Earth collectibles from Mars.
“Are you out of your mind? Not just not, but damn it, ”one of the commentators suggested. “No nation should put the entire planet at risk,” said another. And the third part expressed the opinion: “The public opposition will definitely increase sharply as the knowledge of [NASA’s] intentions extend beyond the smaller space community. ” Many of the respondents suggested that any supply of samples should somehow first be obtained and studied outside the Earth – an approach that, while certainly reasonable, could easily become a logistical and budgetary nightmare.
Compare this to the blunt opinion of Stephen Banner, a well-known astrobiologist and founder of the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Alachua, Florida: “I don’t see the need for long discussions about how samples from Mars should be stored once they hit our planet.” he says. This is because cosmic rocks that fall on Mars usually eject material that eventually hits Earth. According to current estimates, about 500 pounds of Martian rocks land on our planet each year, Benner says. He even has a five-gram piece of Mars that adorns his desk, which hints at that fact.
“In the more than 3.5 billion years since life appeared on Earth, trillions of other rocks have made similar journeys,” Benner says. “If the microbiota of Mars exists and can wreak havoc on the Earth’s biosphere, it has already happened, and a few more pounds from NASA will have nothing.”
Noting his work in many of the same expert groups now cited by NASA for his “extremely low” MSR risk assessment, Benner says the space agency seems to have fallen into a public relations trap he made himself, and the honor is forced indefinitely. discuss the alleged difficulties. what really should be considered a simple, well-established science. NASA now knows “how to look for life on Mars, where to look for life on Mars, and why there is a high probability of finding life on Mars,” he notes. “But NASA committees, seeking consensus and alignment on the fundamentals of chemistry, biology, and planetary science that should stimulate the search for Martian life, are displacing science in favor of discussing these issues,” unnecessarily increasing the cost and delaying the launch of missions. .
“Ultimately, they ensure that NASA never carries out any life-finding missions,” Benner says.
Such statements reflect a growing sense of urgency in American planetary scientists about making MSR a reality. In April, NASA received the last decade of the survey on planetary science and astrobiology, an influential report by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, which identifies priorities for the near future in this area. One of the main recommendations of the report requires that the agency reinforce its plans to process MSR samples with an emphasis on preparing a Mars sampling facility by 2031 to receive materials from the Red Planet.
To meet that deadline, NASA must immediately begin designing – and building – such a facility, says Philip Christensen, a professor at the University of Arizona and co-chair of the steering committee of the new Decade Review.
“Our recommendation was not to give up and build a very whimsical, very complex, very tool-rich reception facility,” Christensen says. “Instead, make it as simple as possible. The number one task is to make sure the samples are safe and then send them to labs around the world that already have very sophisticated instruments. ”
John Ramel, now a retired astrobiologist who previously led NASA’s efforts to “protect the planets” for his interplanetary missions, agrees that simplicity can save time, but at an uncertain cost. “No one wants to spend all the world’s money on the Taj Mahal.” [sample-return] science, ”he says. However, the construction of an object could have the opposite effect if it does not allow scientists to properly investigate whether there is evidence of life in any of the returned samples.
More fundamentally, Ramel says, it’s just not true that we know enough about Mars to quantify the risks of interplanetary MSR infection. “First, we don’t know everything we want to know about Mars. That’s why we need samples, ”Ramel says. “We continue to discover terrestrial organisms that do new things that are quite interesting in terms of potential life elsewhere. So why don’t we think we need to be careful? The answer is that one needs to be careful, as the National has repeatedly stressed [Academies]…. People need to have some respect for the unknown. If you have that kind of respect, then you can do a reliable job, and your caution serves the public well. ”
All together now
Although the true risks of MSR for an interplanetary environmental catastrophe may be unknown, the threat posed by negative public opinion to the mission is understandable to most participating scientists. Despite this, interaction with the public is welcome, says Penny Boston, an astrobiologist with NASA’s Ames Research Center. What could be a better way to advance the research needed to fill gaps in knowledge about planetary protection, she ponders, than to interest people in the subject and its weighty stakes? “This will allow us to optimally protect the Earth’s and man’s biosphere, while at the same time making the most of the analysis of Mars samples to answer scientific questions,” Boston says.
Similarly, while the outrageous effect of severe restrictions on the handling of MSR samples seems more likely than the outbreak of any otherworldly pandemic due to weaker biosafety protocols, some argue that in absolute budget terms, caution is simply not very costly.
According to astrobiologist Cassie Conley, who replaced Ramel as NASA’s planetary protection officer from 2006 to 2017, by the time the MSR capsule hits the dry bottom of a lake in Utah, “taxpayers will invest at least $ 10 billion to deliver these samples to Earth.” . So shouldn’t we spend 1 percent more to build the best facilities and instruments to study these samples, and ensure that MSR doesn’t lead to something bad with the only planet we can live on? ”
However, there is another problem that complicates the debate: MSR is no longer alone in its search for fresh Red Planet stones, and other projects may not comply with its rules, which are still emerging. China recently announced its own independent plans to deliver Martian materials directly to Earth, possibly earlier than NASA / ESA Mars Sample Return, and there is a “wild map” of Ilona Mask’s SpaceX-focused SpaceX efforts leading to human travel to Mars. . and return much earlier than most experts suggest.
China’s entry is of particular concern to Barry DiGregorio, an astrobiologist and founding director of the International Committee Against the Return of the Mars Sample (ICAMSR). “Is that [returning samples from Mars] is being made as a global effort to share real-time findings with all space countries, not as a national goal, no country will know what another has found or what problems it has with containment, ”he says.
That’s why DiGregorio argues that priority should be given to excluding the possibility of each sample harming the Earth’s biosphere before it is returned to our planet – which is best done on a special space station or even in an astrobiological research laboratory built as part of a lunar base. . “Of course,” he adds, given the growing global geopolitical tensions, “this concept is likely to be difficult to sell,” but now is the “critical time” to consider it.