NRC Report Recommends Strict Quarantine on Mars Samples

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The National Research Council has released a report calling for the strictest of quarantine procedures relating to any soil and rock samples returned from Mars.

The Assessment of Planetary Protection Requirements for Mars Sample Return Missions report recommends that “samples returned from Mars by spacecraft should be contained and treated as though potentially hazardous until proven otherwise.”

The reports recommendations include:

Recommendation: Based on current knowledge of past and present habitability of Mars, NASA should continue to maintain a strong and conservative program of planetary protection for Mars sample return. That is, samples returned from Mars by spacecraft should be contained and treated as though potentially hazardous until proven otherwise. No uncontained martian materials, including spacecraft surfaces that have been exposed to the martian environment, should be returned to Earth unless sterilized.

Recommendation: Detailed protocols for sample containment, handling, and testing, including criteria for release from a sample-receiving facility (SRF), should be clearly articulated in advance of Mars sample return. The protocols should be reviewed periodically as part of the ongoing SRF oversight process that will incorporate new laboratory findings and advances in analytical methods and containment technologies. International partners involved with the implementation of a Mars sample return mission should be a party to all necessary consultations,
deliberations, and reviews

Recommendation: Future protocol guidelines should carefully consider the problems of sample heterogeneity in developing strategies for life detection analyses and biohazards testing in order to avoid sampling errors and false negatives.

Recommendation: The best nondestructive methods must be identified for mapping the microscale spatial distributions of minerals, microstructures, and biologically important elements within returned martian samples.

Recommendation: Sample characterization in laboratories outside the primary sample-receiving facility will require the design of secondary containers for safely transporting samples and interfacing with a potentially wider variety of instruments.

Recommendation: The canister(s) containing material returned from Mars should remain sealed during all mission phases (launch, cruise, re-entry, and landing) through transport to a sample-receiving facility where it (they) can be opened under strict containment.

Recommendation: Because of the lengthy time needed for the complex development of a sample-receiving facility (SRF) and its associated biohazard-test protocol, instrumentation, and operations, planning for an SRF should be included in the earliest phases of the Mars sample return mission.

Recommendation: Construction and commissioning of a sample-receiving facility should be completed and fully operational at least 2 years prior to the return of samples to Earth, in order to allow ample time for integrated testing of the facility, the overall test protocol, and instrumentation well in advance of receiving returned martian materials.

Recommendation: A sample-receiving facility should employ multidisciplinary teams of scientists to develop, validate, and perform a rigorous battery of tests that will be used to determine whether and when unsterilized materials returned from Mars may be approved for controlled distribution, or full release from containment.

Recommendation: An independent science and technical advisory committee should be constituted with oversight responsibilities for materials returned by a Mars sample return mission.

Read the full report (PDF).