Fwd = Protect us from Mars life forms, scientists tell Bush
- Forwarded by: fwestra@...
Original Date: Fri, 1 Jun 2001 15:26:17 -0400 (EDT)
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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
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
� 2001 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd
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