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The Quarantine and Certification of Martian Samples (2002)

Chapter:8 Conclusions and Recommendations

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Suggested Citation:"8 Conclusions and Recommendations." National Research Council. 2002. The Quarantine and Certification of Martian Samples. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10138.
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8
Conclusions and Recommendations

Briefly stated, the conclusions of the COMPLEX study on the quarantine and certification of martian samples are as follows.

  1. COMPLEX agrees with the findings of earlier panels and committees, that Mars samples should be treated on the assumption that they contain dangerous microorganisms, and they should be subjected to an effective quarantine upon arrival on Earth.

  2. It will take a substantial amount of time (the estimate of COMPLEX is 7 years) to design, construct, and implement an effective quarantine facility, even if (as COMPLEX recommends) the design and quarantine plan are kept as simple as possible. The facility is complicated unavoidably by the need to combine biological containment with clean-room conditions. It is imperative to begin planning, construction, and staffing of the facility at least 7 years prior to projected sample return. This schedule cannot be shortened without compromising the effectiveness of the quarantine facility. The time of launch of a Mars sample-return mission should be constrained by the schedule of construction of such a facility; an element of the Launch Readiness Review should be a Mars Quarantine Facility Readiness Review.

    The possible need to clear an environmental impact statement for the quarantine facility should be borne in mind. Extra time needed for this task must be added to the projected 7-year schedule for construction and implementation.

  3. Several initiatives should be begun prior to design of the quarantine facility and planning of quarantine protocols, i.e., immediately:

    • A program of research should be begun to determine the efficacy of supercritical fluids and commonly used organic solvents in killing organisms.

    • A program of research should be begun to determine the effects on organic compounds in rocky matrices of varying degrees of application of heat and gamma irradiation.

    • Work should begin on the problem of combining biological containment with clean-room conditions, to include mocking up containment/clean-room combinations whose efficacy can be tested.

    • A continuing committee of senior biologists and geochemists should be formed and charged with reviewing these initiatives and every step of the planning, construction, and ultimately the employment of the Mars Quarantine Facility.

Suggested Citation:"8 Conclusions and Recommendations." National Research Council. 2002. The Quarantine and Certification of Martian Samples. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10138.
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  1. The probability is large that the Mars samples will display properties that at least some people consider suggestive of life forms or life processes, although other observers disagree. In the event of such equivocal evidence, plans should be in place to begin distributing sterilized samples immediately to approved investigators (biological and geochemical) for study in their home institutions. This distribution should not wait upon resolution of the significance of the equivocal evidence, which is likely to take a very long time.

  2. Rigorous programs of heat and/or gamma-ray sterilization should be planned for samples that are to be removed from the quarantine facility, more than sufficient to kill any known terrestrial organism (e.g., twice the necessary dose of gamma irradiation).

The specific recommendations of COMPLEX are presented in preceding chapters and are assembled in the Executive Summary of this report.

Suggested Citation:"8 Conclusions and Recommendations." National Research Council. 2002. The Quarantine and Certification of Martian Samples. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10138.
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Page63
Suggested Citation:"8 Conclusions and Recommendations." National Research Council. 2002. The Quarantine and Certification of Martian Samples. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10138.
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Page64
Next: Appendix A Deinococcus radiodurans as an Analogue to Extremophile Organisms That May Have Survived on Mars »
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One of the highest-priority activities in the planetary sciences identified in published reports of the Space Studies Board's Committee on Planetary and Lunar Exploration (COMPLEX) and in reports of other advisory groups is the collection and return of extraterrestrial samples to Earth for study in terrestrial laboratories. In response to recommendations made in such studies, NASA has initiated a vigorous program that will, within the next decade, collect samples from a variety of solar system environments. In particular the Mars Exploration Program is expected to launch spacecraft that are designed to collect samples of martian soil, rocks, and atmosphere and return them to Earth, perhaps as early as 2015.

International treaty obligations mandate that NASA conduct such a program in a manner that avoids the cross-contamination of both Earth and Mars. The Space Studies Board's 1997 report Mars Sample Return: Issues and Recommendations examined many of the planetary-protection issues concerning the back contamination of Earth and concluded that, although the probability that martian samples will contain dangerous biota is small, it is not zero.1 Steps must be taken to protect Earth against the remote possibility of contamination by life forms that may have evolved on Mars. Similarly, the samples, collected at great expense, must be protected against contamination by terrestrial biota and other matter. Almost certainly, meeting these requirements will entail opening the sample-return container in an appropriate facility on Earth-presumably a BSL-4 laboratory-where testing, biosafety certification, and quarantine of the samples will be carried out before aliquots are released to the scientific community for study in existing laboratory facilities. The nature of the required quarantine facility, and the decisions required for disposition of samples once they are in it, were regarded as issues of sufficient importance and complexity to warrant a study by the Committee on Planetary and Lunar Exploration (COMPLEX) in isolation from other topics. (Previous studies have been much broader, including also consideration of the mission that collects samples on Mars and brings them to Earth, atmospheric entry, sample recovery, and transport to the quarantine facility.) The charge to COMPLEX stated that the central question to be addressed in this study is the following: What are the criteria that must be satisfied before martian samples can be released from a quarantine facility?

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