Credit: NASA

In the event you’re off-planet and haven’t caught the latest Earth-based bio-hazard news.

A new virus called the 2019 novel Coronavirus is the cause of the outbreak that started in China and is spreading worldwide. Relatively little is known about the virus so far, also called COVID-19.

For now, there isn’t much known about this new virus. Public health groups, such as the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are monitoring the state of affairs. Bottom line: The severity of the new Coronavirus symptoms can range from very mild to severe, even death. It remains unclear exactly how contagious the new Coronavirus is or how it spreads.

The Andromeda Strain – the 1971 movie, but how real for a 21st century return to Earth of Mars samples?
Credit: Universal Pictures

Me being me, I have long been cognizant of Andromeda Strain connections with shooting back to Earth collectibles from Mars, that is, possible Martian organisms that might be injurious to Earth’s fragile biosphere…and that’s me and you too!

Meanwhile, NASA’s proposed 2021 budget supports the development of the Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission, a robotic ability to haul back the goods from the Red Planet.

Are there some Mars-oriented lessons-to-be-learned in countering the Coronavirus?  

Credit: Carl Sagan Institute

Martian pathogens

In 1973, Carl Sagan published The Cosmic Connection – An Extraterrestrial Perspective, offering this view of Martian pathogens:

“Precisely because Mars is an environment of great potential biological interest, it is possible that on Mars there are pathogens, organisms which, if transported to the terrestrial environment, might do enormous biological damage – a Martian plague, the twist in the plot of H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, but in reverse. This is an extremely grave point. On the one hand, we can argue that Martian organisms cannot cause any serious problems to terrestrial organisms, because there has been no biological contact for 4.5 billion years between Martian and terrestrial organisms. On the other hand, we can argue equally well that terrestrial organisms have evolved no defenses against potential Martian pathogens, precisely because there has been no such contact for 4.5 billion years. The chance of such an infection may be very small, but the hazards, if it occurs, are certainly very high.”

Now, let’s move this issue to the present, taking into account what next for Mars exploration, concerns about life on the Red Planet, future exploration initiatives, forward and back contamination, what the worries are, and who cares.

Loaded to the brim with samples, a robotic Mars Ascent Vehicle rockets off the planet under the watchful eye of an accompanying mini-rover.
Credit: NASA/JPL

Climate of concern…face of ignorance

“I think that it might be instructive to consider the climate of concern that accompanies the current situation with Coronavirus,” said John Rummel, a senior scientist for the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. He also served as NASA’s Planetary Protection Officer in 1986-1993 and 1997-2006.

“Despite the fact that they have a good test for exposure, etc., there is still a difficulty in mounting an effective quarantine because the symptoms are not immediately presented,” Rummel points out.

There is a hope, Rummel said, that the spread of Coronavirus will be affected by the change of seasons, as it might if this were a European or North American problem, exclusively, but it isn’t.

“I think that the challenge for a Mars Sample Return activity is to be open about precautions taken in the face of ignorance,” Rummel said, “which is what we have to assume when we discuss life on Mars.”

NASA’s Mars 2020 rover on the prowl and geared to collect and cache samples for future return to Earth.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Schools of thought

Rummel said there are various schools of thought in terms of hauling Mars samples back to our planet, but that the planned, precautionary approach based on strict containment and biohazard/life testing is compatible with the potential to discover life in a sample, or elsewhere on Mars by other means, as it would still allow for a sample to be returned.

“If one finds life in the sample, one has a good chance of being able to study it in containment. The downside of this approach is that it is more expensive, up-front, than ignoring life on Mars,” Rummel notes.

As was pointed out in the report of the recent Planetary Protection Independent Review Board chaired by Alan Stern, this approach requires up front development of a sample-handling facility, dedicated to the analysis and testing of a Mars sample.

Rummel said that, if something like the Coronavirus situation — or the anthrax situation in 2001 — pops up, then any other containment facility may not be available in a timely way, and may not be able to meet the cleanliness requirements that will ensure that any organisms discovered in the sample came from Mars, and not from Earth after the sample arrives.

Moon base design.
Credit: ESA/P. Carril

Biosphere safety

“There have always been incidences of human epidemics on the Earth from invasive species. However, an infection from Mars may affect the entire biosphere – not just humans. Of course, little is being discussed or done by spacefaring agencies like NASA or the European Space Agency about dire scenarios like this,” said Barry DiGregorio, an astrobiologist who spent 10 years as a research associate for the Cardiff Centre of Astrobiology at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom.

Mars sample return involves the safety of our biosphere, DiGregorio said, so it needs to be approached with the “utmost caution.”

DiGregorio said that he hopes that NASA and the European Space Agency would have to file an Environmental Impact Statement before obtaining a launch license for the Mars sample return effort, listing any negative effects from rocketing those samples back to Earth. 

Moon: sample return examination facility?

DiGregorio is author of a new e-book, Discovery on Vera Rubin Ridge: Trace Fossils on Mars? In its pages, he makes the case for guarding against back contamination from Mars by using the Moon as a sample return examination facility to qualify samples for eventual return to Earth. “A well planned lunar quarantine laboratory as part of a larger lunar base would be perceived by the public and scientific community as another legitimate reason to reinvest in a return to the Moon,” he explains in the book.

“An examination facility in orbit around the Moon or on the lunar surface would guarantee the Earth would be protected during the time it takes to analyze returned samples not only from Mars but also the moons of Jupiter and Saturn,” DiGregorio told Inside Outer Space.

Precautionary steps

Is the emergence of a new epidemic here on our planet a cue about taking precautionary steps beyond Earth in terms of planetary protection?

Confirmation of the existence and extent of life on Mars, whether ancient or current, will benefit human exploration. Here an exobiologist examines what appears to be a porous relic of a hot spring that has fallen from the canyon wall.
Credit: NASA/Pat Rawlings

Catharine Conley was NASA’s Planetary Protection Officer from 2006 into November 2017. “As with historical infectious disease epidemics, the Coronavirus that’s spreading currently is another example of why it’s so important to understand the consequences of interacting with environments humans rarely contact, and then distributing widely whatever was picked up,” she said.

In this age of frequent travel, Conley said, when humans in rural areas interact with wildlife, it exposes the global population to novel diseases – or diseases, like Coronavirus, that can cross with versions we’ve already got and make them more virulent.

“In the case of Mars exploration, it’s most likely that Earth organisms transported to Mars could cause problems for future inhabitants. If Mars life exists and is brought to Earth, it’s more likely to cause effects on the environment, like the algae recently found to be warming the ice in Greenland, than that it would be a virulent human pathogen,” Conley said.

However, if Mars life is related to Earth life, Conley said, “that makes it much harder to distinguish from Earth contamination — and also, just like diseases that jump species, more likely to affect us, too.”

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