For years now, researchers have been attempting to collect samples from Mars’ surface.
Multiple missions are underway to collect a pristine sample of Mars, ranging from China’s Tianwen-2 to NASA and the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Perseverance Rover.
Strategies have ranged from “grab and go” from the surface of the planet to collecting dust from the atmosphere to robots collecting the much-desired samples.
However, one question arises from all of this. Does this collection, and transportation of samples from an alien planet pose a risk for Earth?
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Think Andromeda strain…
In case you don’t know, ‘Andromeda Strain’ is a movie based on a novel of the same name by Michael Crichton. It is the story of a US research satellite that crashes into a small town, bringing with it a deadly extraterrestrial microscopic virus which wipes out half the population.
Now, what if this happens outside of reel life? What if fiction becomes reality and we end up bringing a deadly virus from Mars?
As per a former NASA Planetary Protection Officer, Cassie Conley, “Since the beginning of space exploration, planetary protection has mandated that samples from Mars should be considered ‘Restricted Earth Return’.”
Talking to space.com Colney explained that this means it “requires the most stringent containment to protect both the samples and the Earth.”
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According to NASA, collecting and transporting samples is critical in answering one crucial question: did life ever exist on Mars?
The NASA Mars Sample Return Mission (MSR) website says “Only by bringing the samples back can we truly answer the question by using the most sophisticated, state-of-the-art labs, at a time when future generations can study them using techniques yet to be invented.”
According to it, several panels of scientific experts from the United States and around the world have studied whether samples from Mars could pose a threat to Earth’s environment.
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The findings of these panels say that there is a very little chance that materials acquired from places on Mars, like those studied by Perseverance could contain a biological hazard to our biosphere.
While the effort is described as “low risk,” it’s wise to remember that it isn’t zero risk.
But there is another possibility: robots and devices from Earth can very well take with them Earth microbes that can negatively affect Mars.
Is it worth the risk? We hope so.