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Assessment of Planetary Protection Requirements for MARS: Sample Return Missions
of the two planets. As noted above, it is also possible that if life had an independent origin on Mars, living martian organisms may have been delivered to Earth. Although such exchanges are less common today, they would have been particularly common during the early history of the solar system when impact rates were much higher.
Despite suggestions to the contrary,25 it is simply not possible, on the basis of current knowledge, to determine whether viable martian life forms have already been delivered to Earth. Certainly in the modern era, there is no evidence for large-scale or other negative effects that are attributable to the frequent deliveries to Earth of essentially unaltered martian rocks. However, the possibility that such effects occurred in the distant past cannot be discounted. Thus, it is not appropriate to argue that the existence of martian meteorites on Earth negates the need to treat as potentially hazardous any samples returned from Mars via robotic spacecraft. A prudent planetary protection policy must assume that a potential biological hazard exists from Mars sample return and that every precaution should be taken to ensure the complete isolation of any deliberately returned samples, until it can be determined that no hazard exists.
The committee concurred with the basic conclusion of the NRC’s 1997 report Mars Sample Return: Issues andRecommendations26 that the potential risks of large-scale effects arising from the intentional return of martian materials to Earth are primarily those associated with replicating biological entities, rather than toxic effects attributed to microbes, their cellular structures, or extracellular products. Therefore, the focus of attention should be placed on the potential for pathogenic-infectious diseases, or harmful ecological effects on Earth’s environments.
The committee found that the potential for large-scale negative effects on Earth’s inhabitants or environments by a returned martian life form appears to be low, but is not demonstrably zero. Changes in regulations, oversight, and planetary protection controls over the past decade support the need to remain vigilant in applying requirements to protect against potential biohazards, whether as pathogenic or ecological agents. Thus, a conservative approach to both containment and test protocols remains the most appropriate response.
A related issue concerns the natural introduction of martian materials to Earth’s environment in the form of martian meteorites. Although exchanges of essentially unaltered crustal materials have occurred routinely throughout the history of Earth and Mars, it is not known whether a putative martian microorganism could survive ejection, transit, and impact delivery to Earth or would be sterilized by shock pressure heating during ejection, or by radiation damage accumulated during transit. Likewise, it is not possible to assess past or future negative impacts caused by the delivery of putative extraterrestrial life, based on present evidence.
Assessing the potential for impact-mediated interchanges of viable organisms between Earth and Mars remains an active area of research that may eventually lead to a more refined understanding of the potential hazards associated with Mars sample return. Thus, the committee encourages continued support for research to assess the potential for impact-mediated interchanges of viable organisms between Earth and Mars.
1. National Research Council, Mars Sample Return: Issues and Recommendations, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 1997, pp. 19-22.
2. N.E. Morton, “Fifty Years of Genetic Epidemiology, with Special Reference to Japan,” Journal of Human Genetics 51:269-277, 2006.
3. R.M. Anderson, “Evolutionary Pressures in the Spread and Persistence of Infectious Agents in Vertebrate Populations,” Parasitology 111:S15-S31, 1995.
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5. J.W. Le Duc, K. Anderson, M.E. Bloom, J.E. Estep, H. Feldmann, J.B. Geisbert, T.W. Geisbert, L. Hensley, M. Holbrook, P.B. Jahrling, T.G. Ksiazek, G. Korch, J. Patterson, J.P. Skvorak, and H. Weingartl, “Framework for Leadership and Training of Biosafety Level 4 Laboratory Workers,” Emerging Infectious Diseases 14:1685-1688, 2008.