"We are doing our due diligence to make sure that there’s no possibility of contamination."
To bring a Martian rock sample to Earth without setting loose any potential Red Planet pathogens, NASA will need to go where no space agency has gone before — a special containment lab that doesn't exist yet.
This week, the New York Times reported additional details about an upcoming NASA mission that hopes to bring rock samples from Mars back to our own planet by 2033. Long story short, anything inside the European Space Agency craft that's planning to pick up the samples from Martian orbit will have to be treated very carefully — not because there's a high chance that it'll unleash a terrible Martian plague, but because even if though outcome is extremely unlikely, it's still worth taking serious measures to protect against.
"Because it is not a zero-percent chance, we are doing our due diligence to make sure that there’s no possibility of contamination," Andrea Harrington, the Mars sample curator for NASA, told the NYT.
Because of its special purpose, according to the NYT, even a designated NASA team that toured high-security labs around the world haven't quite figured out how to prepare for the mission's return.
The core issue is that some labs are designed to protect what's inside them from outside contamination, while others are built to protect stuff on the outside from what they contain.
NASA's problem is that it will need both — to ensure that the Mars samples don't infect the Earth or vice versa — and it turns out that's an extremely unusual design. In other words, the agency will need to adapt current lab capabilities or possibly even build something entirely new. It's also considering building a modular lab they it can plop into an existing building.
Whatever it decides, the world's billions of people will just have to trust that its choices will prevent an extraterrestrial pandemic.
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