Analysis of Samples Returned From
Mars: A Need For Revisions to
Current Policy to Safeguard Ecological Diversity
Brendan Craig Dickson, Faculty of Medicine
University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
Prior to deploying bi-directional probes that will return to Earth samples from the atmosphere, surface, and subsurface of Mars, it is essential to fully appreciate the risks and impacts of possible biocontamination to planetary ecosystems on both Earth and Mars.
NASA’s present planetary protection policy (PPP): “Biological Contamination of Mars: Issues and Recommendations”, stems from the recommendations of the NRC’s Space Studies Board, and is a weak and outdated policy that fails to adequately ensure protection of either Earth or Mars. This is due to the fact that this policy downplays the likelihood of finding life on Mars, discovering organisms that would further prove viable on Earth, and grossly underestimating the potential outcome of interactions between these seemingly disparate organisms and ecosystems. In light of mounting evidence which suggests the potential, past or present, for the existence of life on Mars – given by the suggestive results of AH84001, a growing appreciation for the breadth of tenuous conditions under which extremophiles exist on Earth and, perhaps most importantly, the recent evidence from NASA suggesting the existence of liquid water near the surface of Mars – this paper calls for the implementation of a stricter PPP for the transfer and handling of samples derived from Mars.
In contrast to NASA’s present PPP, it is argued that there are several significant ecosystems on Earth with the potential to be seriously impacted by the introduction of xeno-terrestrial organisms. Thus, this paper aims to raise the awareness of the necessity to achieve a unilateral PPP ensuring appropriate care in handling samples returned from Mars by highlighting possible sources and routes of contamination to both planets and discussing methods for ensuring adequate segregation and evaluation of returned samples, as well as the impact and management of a contaminating event.