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MARS SAMPLE QUARANTINE URGED
Thursday, May 31, 2001
To keep any alien microbes from infecting Earth, NASA should begin planning
now for a top-level quarantine of any material brought back from Mars, a
scientific advisory panel says.
Never mind that NASA is at least a decade away from launching a sample
return mission to the Red Planet. Or that bits of Mars have been landing on
Earth for centuries as meteorites, including the famed Mars rock that some
scientists believe show signs of past life.
"We have time to do the job right if we start now," said John Wood, a
Harvard University scientist and chairman of the National Research Council's
Committee on Planetary and Lunar Exploration, which issued a report Tuesday
urging NASA to start working on Mars sample isolation procedures.
The panel recommends NASA initially treat the Mars soil samples with the
same safety precautions used to contain dangerous organisms on Earth, such
as the Ebola virus. Designing and building these top-level quarantine
facilities can take seven years or longer, said Wood, and any facility
should be operating for two years before a probe returns any material from
Mars to Earth.
The earliest NASA currently is projecting to have soil samples from Mars is
Among the issues that would have to be decided is how to not only prevent
any Mars organisms from infecting Earth, but how to keep Earth germs from
contaminating the Mars samples.
The science community also would have to come to an agreement about how to
send the Mars samples out for testing, particularly if any harbor signs of
The National Research Council committee recommends that if the initial
studies for life are inconclusive, the samples should be sterilized by heat,
chemical solvents or gamma radiation before they are dispersed to science
labs for additional studies.
"There will be ample latitude for disagreement among workers as to the
biological significance of the observations made," the panel wrote in its
Added Wood, "Because many questions will still need to be resolved before
design and construction can even begin, it is essential for work to commence
as soon as possible in order for the facility to be ready in time for the
first samples return."
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