Approaches Recommended

NRC 1997a

NRC 2002b

Research Needs/Areas of Research and Development


Ongoing in situ surface and orbital studies of Mars needed to identify sites where life could exist, as well as inherently sterile environments; need for more research on extremophiles, martian meteorites, and the potential for dispersal of microbes impact (panspermia); recommends precursor mission for remote sampling of Mars; technology development issues include sample containment and methods for in-flight verification of containment and sterilization and contamination control

Need more research on sterilization and soluble extraction methods for organic compounds in rock matrices prior to sample arrival; recommends immediate testing of mock-ups of containment/clean-room combinations to prove functionality and efficacy

NOTE: BSL, Biosafety Level; NRC, National Research Council; SRF, sample-receiving facility.

aNational Research Council, Mars Sample Return: Issues and Recommendations, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 1997.

bNational Research Council, The Quarantine and Certification of Martian Samples, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 2002.

cJ.D. Rummel, M.S. Race, D.L. DeVincenzi, P.J. Schad, P.D. Stabekis, M. Viso, and S.E. Acevedo, eds., A Draft Test Protocol for Detecting Possible Biohazards in Martian Samples Returned to Earth, NASA/CP-20-02-211842, NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., 2002.


In the years since publication of the NRC’s 1997 report Mars Sample Return: Issues and Recommendations,22 there have been numerous proposals for alternative approaches to handling sample return. For example, there has been debate about whether there should be multiple sample-receiving laboratories, rather than a single SRF; the advisability of transporting pristine subsamples to facilities outside the SRF to use special instruments or expertise for testing and sample characterization (see Chapter 6); and whether to site the SRF at a NASA center or in association with an existing BSL-4 containment facility. Discussions have also continued about the requirement to maintain all samples in containment until a full battery of biohazard tests have been completed—and how to accommodate the transport of sample materials to facilities outside the SRF for analysis using specialized instruments. In addition, prospects for international mission partnerships and shared responsibilities for the testing of returned materials have further complicated these discussions.

Clearly, a detailed discussion of these and other issues is beyond the scope of the present report. Suffice it to say that whatever decisions are made about containment and handling, the following planetary protection objectives should be given priority for implementation:

  • Maintain the prescribed and appropriate levels of containment for pristine sample materials until a requisite battery of rigorous tests have been completed; and

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