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Fwd = Protect us from Mars life forms, scientists tell Bush

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  • Frits Westra
    Forwarded by: fwestra@hetnet.nl URL: http://www.independent.co.uk/story.jsp?story=75186 Original Date: Fri, 1 Jun 2001 15:26:17 -0400 (EDT)
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 2, 2001
      Forwarded by: fwestra@...
      URL: http://www.independent.co.uk/story.jsp?story=75186
      Original Date: Fri, 1 Jun 2001 15:26:17 -0400 (EDT)

      ========================== Forwarded message begins ======================

      Protect us from Mars life forms, scientists tell Bush

      By Steve Connor, Science Editor

      30 May 2001

      Space scientists have warned President George Bush to build a
      high-security laboratory to protect the Earth from extraterrestrial
      life forms when returning spaceships carry rock samples from Mars.

      A high-level committee of scientific advisers has recommended that
      such a quarantine facility should be built without delay. The
      committee said it should be run by a dedicated team of highly trained
      personnel who were familiar with the technical procedures needed to
      limit the risk that alien microbes might pose to life on Earth.

      Although the scientists believe the risk from an unknown biohazard is
      low, they admit it is "not zero". They want the US National
      Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) to build a new laboratory
      with unprecedented biological barriers, to prevent the escape of an
      "Andromeda strain" into an unsuspecting world.

      The committee recommends three possible sites in America for the new
      lab: the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia; the US Army
      Medical Research Institute in Fort Detrick, Maryland; or the
      University of Texas in Galveston, which also has experience of working
      with dangerous organisms.

      John Wood, the chairman of the Committee on Planetary and Lunar
      Exploration of the US National Research Council (NRC), said the new
      laboratory should be the most stringent type of containment facility
      available known as biosafety laboratory level 4 (BSL-4) currently
      used for handling the most deadly diseases, such as the Ebola virus.

      But whereas existing BSL-4 laboratories have to guard against the
      escape of microbes, the new space-quarantine facility also has to be a
      "clean room". It must protect the extraterrestrial rocks against
      possible contamination with terrestrial organisms, which would upset
      the scientific scrutiny of the alien life forms.

      Clean rooms are usually kept at an air pressure slightly higher than
      the outside, so that things can leave but not enter. But a containment
      facility is kept at a slightly lower air pressure to prevent an
      escape. Marrying the two requirements presents an unprecedented
      technical challenge.

      Dr Wood, a senior scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for
      Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said: "Building this type of
      quarantine facility is a project of enormous complexity. We strongly
      recommend that this process gets under way as soon as possible."

      Recent evidence that life may exist beyond Earth had spurred Nasa into
      requesting the NRC to investigate what was needed for the safe return
      of Martian rocks, as well as samples from other places in the Solar
      System where life might exist, such as Ganymede and Europa, two of the
      moons of Jupiter. Dr Wood said: "The question of whether life exists
      on other planets is not a new one. Nor is the question frivolous.
      Recent evidence of ancient water on the surface of Mars and an ocean
      on Jupiter's moon, Europa, compels us to entertain the notion, however
      remote, that Earth is not the only planet in the Solar System capable
      of sustaining life."

      The committee, which included some of the leading authorities on
      astronomy, planet- ary science and biology, said that the quarantine
      problems had to be solved soon, to begin building the laboratory in
      time for the return of the first Martian rocks in 2014.

      Dr Wood said building and preparing the laboratory would take at least
      seven years. "Because many questions 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 to be ready in time for the
      first samples' return. A prime, and perhaps the only, means to provide
      a definitive answer to the life-on-Mars question is to retrieve
      surface samples for detailed laboratory studies," Dr Wood explained.

      The committee said that rock samples should be released from the
      containment laboratory only if they were properly sterilised with heat
      or gamma radiation, and they should never be released if they
      contained "unmistakable evidence of life".

      The scientists are anxious to avoid a repetition of the lunar rock
      fiasco 30 years ago, in which quarantine measures were breached. An
      NRC report into the affair, published in 1997, said: "It was evident
      from the Apollo experience that the science team, and the lunar
      receiving facility, would have been more effective if the team members
      had had prior experience together on common problems, before receiving
      lunar samples."


      � 2001 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd

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