NASA is already working to prevent the samples it brings back from Mars from contaminating Earth

NASA is already working to prevent the samples it brings back from Mars from contaminating Earth

Designing the ship that could bring Mars samples to Earth (NASA)

Two American robots (Curiosity and Perseverance) and a Chinese one (Zhurong) are already rolling on Mars. And while these robots perform experiments on the red Martian surface, From Earth, scientists are looking for a way to bring a sample of the rocks or dust studied 225 million kilometers away to the planet.

For it, NASA is planning its first mission to bring soil and rocks from Mars back to Earth, but before this momentous event occurs, the space agency must find out exactly how to protect our home planet from any extraterrestrial microbes that may travel and cause a pollution problem.

This week, the agency realizes meetings where he will announce his intention to landing spacecraft with martian samples at a US Air Force test range in Utah in the early 2030s. “This may be the most important environmental assessment humans have ever made. I think it’s highly unlikely that there is anything alive on the surface of Mars. But there is a possibility and nothing should be ruled out,” he said. Pierre Doran geologist at Louisiana State University who studies life in extreme environments.

The Perseverance rover has already collected 8 Mars samples (Photo illustration by NASA via Getty Images)

The Perseverance rover has already collected 8 Mars samples (Photo illustration by NASA via Getty Images)

Having a rock sample from Mars here on Earth would allow scientists to conduct extensive laboratory testing. search for evidence as to whether this cold, harsh, rocky world was once habitable and possibly even inhabited. For experts, this is a long-held dream. After the rocks brought back by the Apollo mission, there has been talk for decades of analyzing Martian material. Still, Doran says no one has figured out exactly how to handle the incoming Martian samples. Wondering how to contain possible germs? Or what specific features are needed for the secure laboratory that will house the rocks?

“Until recently, little attention had been paid to the details of sample installation and all because we didn’t think it was going to happen.”. Now, however, the effort appears to be entering a fast lane, with NASA officials collaborating with the European Space Agency and planning to launch a suite of recovery spacecraft as early as 2027 and 2028. To prepare, NASA’s Perseverance rover, which landed on Mars last year drilled cylindrical rock samples and sealed them inside metal tubes.

We have eight samples on board the rover now.“, precise Jim Bell, an Arizona State University planetary scientist who is part of the Perseverance rover team. The expert explained that the The robot explored an ancient crater on Mars that appears to have once held water. Occasionally, the rover drills into a cylindrical core of rock the size of a marker. The core is then hermetically sealed in one of the rover’s 42 metal sample tubes. “We cache them and prepare them for pickup. And it’s further than the planetary science community has gone before,” Bell said.

Martian rocks at risk

Stunned by the vast landscape, NASA's Curiosity rover mission team created an artistic rendering of the robotic rover's view atop a Martian mountain.  (NASA/JPL-CALTECH)

Stunned by the vast landscape, NASA’s Curiosity rover mission team created an artistic rendering of the robotic rover’s view atop a Martian mountain. (NASA/JPL-CALTECH)

NASA officials are working a plan to collect the samples safely: a spacecraft would land on Mars and launch a container filled with the previously collected rock samples into orbit around the planet. Once in orbit, this container could be engulfed by another container, like a large fish eating a small fish, to keep anything that touched Mars inside.

It would then be sealed and the seal would be heat sterilized, broad outlines Brian Clement, a planetary protection expert at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who works on the mission. “We apply very high heat. It will exceed 900 degrees Fahrenheit. We want to be able to break down any biomolecule that might have interesting activity,” he said. However, this is a technical challenge, as scientists also want to keep rock samples cold, as they were on Mars. “I liken it to welding your lunch box to metal while trying to keep your lunch chilled inside,” Clement said.

The sanitized container would then go into another container, which would also be sealed and placed on the Earth entry vehicle, who would eventually land in the Utah desert, without a parachute. “We like to call it a 90 mph fastball, where the landing spot is the glove,” Clement explains. “That 90 mph landing, just like with a baseball, is well within the capabilities of Earth’s entry system.” However, some observers find this proposal disturbing.

The Perseverance discovers magma during its explorations on Mars (NASA)

The Perseverance discovers magma during its explorations on Mars (NASA)

“We’re just going to bring it back and land it in the Utah desert.as well as the solar sample return mission of Genesis which, of course, opened up on impact,” says Barry DiGregorio, scientist, writer and member of the group called the International Committee Against Mars Sample Returns, which has long opposed plans to bring Martian rocks directly to Earth. “Can you imagine what would happen if you had pathogenic organisms from another planet and you had this kind of eventDiGregorio said. But Clement says that several panels of scientific experts have weighed the risk of returning samples from Mars over the years and that “these panels have agreed that the potential danger is very, very low.”

Still, he says, NASA takes a conservative approach. “Anything that has had direct contact with Mars will be contained or sterilized before being released.said Clement. And Bell adds that he’s not worried about the possibility that Martian germs mixed in with the rocks could escape into the environment and cause problems or illnesses, “despite the fact that many sci-fi fans s ‘probably worry about it’.

Not all life on Mars would be suitable for survival on Earth,” Bell explains, because it would have evolved in a distinct biosphere or environment suitable for life.. “We are talking about a completely different ecosystem, a completely different potential biosphere. And of course, we don’t know if there is or was a biosphere on Mars.” According to him, the main danger of rupture or leakage would be to contaminate the precious Martian samples with terrestrial material. That’s why the samples will likely need to be opened in high-tech facilities capable of replicating the environment and atmosphere of Mars, Bell says.

29-09-2021 NASA missions to Mars, clockwise from top left: Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter, InSight lander, Odyssey orbiter, MAVEN orbiter, Curiosity rover and Mars Reconnaissance (NASA / JPL-CALTECH)

29-09-2021 NASA missions to Mars, clockwise from top left: Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter, InSight lander, Odyssey orbiter, MAVEN orbiter, Curiosity rover and Mars Reconnaissance (NASA / JPL-CALTECH)

Audience reaction to a special Mars delivery

Even though hehe surface of Mars is currently dry, very cold and bombarded with strong ultraviolet radiation, LSU’s Doran says it’s still possible that microbes could survive in sheltered cavities and holes or under dust. “The odds aren’t zero,” Doran said, though he thinks it’s “highly unlikely.” “We definitely need to take this position of protecting Earth, at least in the early missions, until we know what’s going on,” he said. One of the few efforts to find out what the public thinks of bringing home Martian rocks took place in the 1990s. This study found that “the public perception of biological risks associated with a Mars sample return mission is not considered high risk relative to other technological and environmental risks and hazards, such as nuclear technologies, food hazards and the depletion of the ozone layer”.

But public perceptions may be different now, in part because of the coronavirus pandemic, he said Daisy race one of the researchers involved in this study from the 1990s, who worked on planetary protection with the SETI Institute. “What we’re talking about is bringing it to Utah in a big desert, and then you pick it up and take it to another place, a lab,” Race says, noting that people will want to know where to go. find this lab.

Many details remain to be settled in the face of the prospect of a return to Earth of a Martian rock. That’s exciting for scientists like ASU’s Bell, who have been studying Mars for years. “I just want to see these things with my own eyes. We’ve been looking at this world through robotic eyes for so long, and I want to see that famous red dust. And I want to see inside some of these rocks and little grains that maybe formed in a watery environment 3 or 4 billion years ago.”

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