It may sound like a plot from a science fiction film, but NASA and the world governments are concerned about alien viruses contaminating Earth.
As the first humans prepare for the Mars mission, experts warn that protocols are necessary to keep extraterrestrial pollutants from hitchhiking on space ships and astronauts when returning home from the Red Planet.
Stanford professor of aeronautics and astronautics Scott Hubbard said in an interview that the solution is ‘planetary protection’.
Mechanical systems will have to undergo a combination of chemical cleaning and heat sterilization, while the tubes containing samples from Mars need to be treated ‘as though they are the Ebola virus until proven safe.’
Hubbard also suggests that astronauts must be quarantine once they touch down on our planet, as the first men who visited the moon in the Apollo mission did.
As the first humans prepare for the Mars mission, experts warn that protocols need to be created to keep extraterrestrial pollutants from hitchhiking on space ships and astronauts when returning home.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced last year that NASA is aiming to put humans on Mars sometime in the 2030s – and as early as 2035.
Although exciting, the mission could be detrimental to Earth if the space faring heroes return carrying alien pollutants.
Speaking with Stanford News Hubbard said: ‘In my opinion, and that of the science community, the chance that rocks from Mars that are millions of years old will contain an active life form that could infect Earth is extremely low.’
‘But, the [Mars] samples returned by [NASA] will be quarantined and treated as though they are the Ebola virus until proven safe.’
The tubes that return with the samples aboard the upcoming Mars 2020 mission, which is sending NASA’s Perseverance Rover (artist impression), will have to ‘be baked at a high temperature’ be for human staff can interact with them
Past space missions to Mars, such as Viking I and II in the mid-1970s, used large budget rockets that were able to be sterilized using just intense heat.
However, now that rockets are being developed at a low cost at both universities and companies, like SpaceX, these small craft ‘will be burdened by the cost of planetary protection.’
Hubbard notes that although heat alone is not enough to decontaminate the technology, combining the process with chemical cleaning may be effective.
The tubes that return with the samples aboard the upcoming Mars 2020 mission, which is sending NASA’s Perseverance Rover, will have to ‘be baked at a high temperature’ be for human staff can interact with them.
‘To guard against back contamination, there is a major effort to ‘break the chain of contact’ between the returning spacecraft and Mars rock samples,’ said H ubbard.
‘For example, autonomous sealing and welding techniques to create three or four levels of containment are planned.’
‘In my opinion, and that of the science community, the chance that rocks from Mars that are millions of years old will contain an active life form that could infect Earth is extremely low.
‘But, the samples returned by MSR will be quarantined and treated as though they are the Ebola virus until proven safe.’
Hubbard acknowledges the fact that humans cannot be cleaned like robots and looks to past protocols.
‘As for humans, the Apollo astronauts from the first few moon missions were quarantined to ensure they showed no signs of illness,’ he said.
Pictured is the landing site of NASA’s Mars 2020 rover, Perseverance, which will gather samples from the Jezero Crater in search of life. ‘To guard against back contamination, there is a major effort to ‘break the chain of contact’ between the returning spacecraft and Mars rock samples,’ said Hubbard
‘Once it was found that the moon did not pose a risk, the quarantine was eliminated. Such a procedure will undoubtedly be followed for humans returning from Mars.’
Not only are experts concerned about contaminating Earth, they also have fear of humans spreading their germs on Mars.
However, a team of researchers from Nova Southeastern University in Florida, along with colleagues W. Raquel Peixoto and Alexandre Rosado from Federal University of Rio de Janeiro suggest human microbes will initiate the process of terraforming the red planet and create an environment that can sustain life.
The team wants to develop a process that involves screening promising microbes and discarding dangerous ones prior to releasing them on Mars.
A major argument by the researchers is that the prevention of contamination is a ‘near impossibility,’ as the authors phrase it in the study.
However, space agencies have put specific protocols in place to prevent the contamination of other planets and experts have noted that more research needs to be done before we start polluting other worlds.
The idea of protecting celestial bodies dates back to the 1950s when the philosophy of planetary protection was created with a sole purpose of recommending and designing such protocols that protects space from Earthly microbes.
It argues that our germs can contaminate scientifically important areas of the solar system – similar to how a crime scene can be compromised if someone not involved touches evidence.
Although the idea of sterilization has been around for decades, Lopez and his team believe it is inevitable that our germs will make it to Mars and other planets.
‘Mainly, microbial introduction should not be considered accidental but inevitable,’ reads the paper published in FEMS Microbiology Ecology.
WHAT EVIDENCE DO SCIENTISTS HAVE FOR LIFE ON MARS?
The search for life on other planets has captivated mankind for decades.
But the reality could be a little less like the Hollywood blockbusters, scientists have revealed.
They say if there was life on the red planet, it probably will present itself as fossilized bacteria – and have proposed a new way to look for it.
Here are the most promising signs of life so far –
When looking for life on Mars, experts agree that water is key.
Although the planet is now rocky and barren with water locked up in polar ice caps there could have been water in the past.
In 2000, scientists first spotted evidence for the existence of water on Mars.
The Nasa Mars Global Surveyor found gullies that could have been created by flowing water.
The debate is ongoing as to whether these recurring slope lineae (RSL) could have been formed from water flow.
Earth has been hit by 34 meteorites from Mars, three of which are believed to have the potential to carry evidence of past life on the planet, writes Space.com.
In 1996, experts found a meteorite in Antarctica known as ALH 84001 that contained fossilised bacteria-like formations.
However, in 2012, experts concluded that this organic material had been formed by volcanic activity without the involvement of life.
Signs of Life
The first close-ups of the planet were taken by the 1964 Mariner 4 mission.
These initial images showed that Mars has landforms that could have been formed when the climate was much wetter and therefore home to life.
In 1975, the first Viking orbiter was launched and although inconclusive it paved the way for other landers.
Many rovers, orbiters and landers have now revealed evidence of water beneath the crust and even occasional precipitation.
Earlier this year, Nasa’s Curiosity rover found potential building blocks of life in an ancient Martian lakebed.
The organic molecules preserved in 3.5 billion-year-old bedrock in Gale Crater — believed to have once contained a shallow lake the size of Florida’s Lake Okeechobee — suggest conditions back then may have been conducive to life.
Future missions to Mars plan on bringing samples back to Earth to test them more thoroughly.
In 2018, Curiosity also confirmed sharp seasonal increases of methane in the Martian atmosphere.
Experts said the methane observations provide ‘one of the most compelling’ cases for present-day life.
Curiosity’s methane measurements occurred over four-and-a-half Earth years, covering parts of three Martian years.
Seasonal peaks were detected in late summer in the northern hemisphere and late winter in the southern hemisphere.
The magnitude of these seasonal peaks – by a factor of three – was far more than scientists expected.