User:Robertinventor/draft version of back contamination article as it was reverted mid edit by VQuakr

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Back-contamination is the informal but widely employed name for the hypothetical introduction of microbial extraterrestrial organisms into Earth's biosphere. It is assumed that any such contact will be disruptive or at least have consequences over which human beings will have little control.[citation needed] The threat of back-contamination from the Moon was the main reason for quarantine procedures adopted for the Apollo program, up until the completion of Apollo 14. Astronauts and lunar samples were quarantined in the Lunar Receiving Laboratory.

The likelihood that a human being or any other animal could literally acquire an alien virus is effectively nil, as viruses are host specific. This does not mean that extraterrestrial microbes cannot act upon one pathogenically: spores might use an organism's body as hosts, while the ingestion of bacteria in any form could produce toxic chemicals. When human beings ingest contaminated food, for example, they are not acquiring a virus in the manner of the flu but the experience may still be lethal because of toxic compounds.

Further, the possibility exists that a microbe might aggressively metabolize some Earth resource were it introduced here, altering atmospheric conditions or the water cycle.[citation needed]

Back contamination from Mars[edit | hide all | hide | edit source]

Since the Moon is now generally considered to be free from life, the most likely source of contamination is Mars. It would arise during a Mars sample return.

Since it is currently unknown whether or not life forms exist on Mars, the mission could potentially transfer viable organisms resulting in back contamination — the introduction of extraterrestrial organisms into Earth's biosphere. The mainstream scientific view as expressed by the NRC and ESF studies and the Office of Planetary Protection is that the risk of harmful back contamination is probably very low, but cannot be demonstrated to be zero.[1] In the worst case scenario (thought to be very low probability) this could lead to environmental disruption and impact on countries outside the nation responsible for the mission. As a result, returned samples from Mars will be treated as potentially biohazardous until scientists can determine that they are safe.[2][3][4][5][6]

The sample return mission will be designed to break the chain of contact between Mars and the exterior of the sample container, for instance, by sealing the returned container inside another larger container in the vacuum of space before return to Earth.[2][7] In order to eliminate the risk of parachute failure, the current plan is to return the capsule to the Earth without the use of parachutes: the capsule will fall at terminal velocity and the impact will be cushioned by the capsule's thermal protection system. The sample container will be designed to withstand the force of the impact.[7]

To receive the returned samples, NASA has proposed to build a biohazard containment facility - known as the Mars Sample Return Receiving facility (MSRRF).[8]

The proposed sample return facility must be a biohazard level 4 laboratory. However, it must also contain unknown biohazards and the sizes of any putative Martian micro-organisms are unknown. In consideration of this, the ESF proposed additional requirements. Ideally it should contain particles of 0.01 µm, or larger, and release of a particle 0.05 µm or larger is unacceptable under any circumstances.[9] It also must double as a clean room to preserve the science value of the samples. A clean room is normally kept at a higher pressure than the external environmnent to keep contaminants out, and a biohazrad laboratory is kept at a lower pressure to keep the biohazards in.[10][11][12][13] This introduces conflicting requirements and requires a novel architecture that will take some years from design to completion.[14][15] Preliminary studies have warned that it may take as many as 7 to 10 years to get it operational and an additional two years is recommended for the staff to become accustomed to the facilities.[16][2]

Legal requirements and need for public debate[edit | hide | edit source]

The ESF report also considered the legal situation. In the event of a release of the contents of the MSR capsule during return to Earth then the state responsible has liability in respect to any damages caused under the Outer Space Treaty. This liability is unlimited in either amount or in time. The situation as regards liability is less clear if the release occurs after return to Earth.[17][18] Margaret Race has examined in detail the legal process of approval for a MSR.[19] She found that under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)[7] (which did not exist in the Apollo era) a formal environment impact statement is likely to be required, and public hearings during which all the issues would be aired openly. This process is likely to take up to several years to complete.

During this process, she found, the full range of worst accident scenarios, impact, and project alternatives would be played out in the public arena. Other agencies such as the Environment Protection Agency, Occupational Health and Safety Administration, etc, may also get involved in the decision making process. The laws on quarantine will also need to be clarified as the regulations for the Apollo program were rescinded. In the Apollo era, NASA delayed announcement of its quarantine regulations until the day Apollo was launched, so bypassing the requirement for public debate - something that would be unlikely to be tolerated today.

It is also probable that the presidential directive NSC-25 will apply which requires a review of large scale alleged effects on the environment and is carried out subsequent to the other domestic reviews and through a long process, leads eventually to presidential approval of the launch. [20]

Then apart from those domestic legal hurdles, there are numerous international regulations and treaties to be negotiated in the case of a Mars Sample Return, especially those relating to environmental protection and health, as well as domestic policies of other nations. She concluded that the public of necessity has a significant role to play in the development of the policies governing Mars Sample Return.[20]

The ESF report has a shorter legal summary, and ends with a series of recommendations. On the need for public debate they say

RECOMMENDATION 10: Considering the global nature of the issue, consequences resulting from an unintended release could be borne by a larger set of countries than those involved in the programme. It is recommended that mechanisms dedicated to ethical and social issues of the risks and benefits raised by an MSR are set up at the international level and are open to representatives of all countries

Differing views on a MSR[edit | hide | edit source]

Carl Sagan was first to raise back contamination concerns. In Cosmic Connection (1973) he writes:

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.[21]

This possibility has been confirmed in all the later studies, as the worst case scenario. It is considered low probability but can't be ruled out.

Later in Cosmos (1980) he wrote

Perhaps Martian samples can be safely returned to Earth. But I would want to be very sure before considering a returned-sample mission.[22]

The PPO and NASA and ESA view is that with present day technology, Martian samples can be safely returned to Earth provided the right precautions are taken.

There are dissenting views however.

The International Committee Against Mars Sample Return[23] maintains that it is not possible to return samples to Earth safely at this stage. They urge more in situ studies on Mars first, and preliminary biohazard testing in space before the samples are returned to Earth.

At the other extreme, Robert Zubrin (Mars surface colonization advocate and director of the Mars Society) maintains that the risk of back contamination has no scientific validity.[24][25]

References[edit | hide | edit source]

  1. The risks of environmental disruption resulting from the inadvertent contamination of Earth with putative martian microbes are still considered to be low. But since the risk cannot be demonstrated to be zero, due care and caution must be exercised in handling any martian materials returned to Earth.

    Assessment of Planetary Protection Requirements for Mars Sample Return Missions (Report). National Research Council. 2009. 

  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 European Science Foundation - Mars Sample Return backward contamination - Strategic advice and requirements July, 2012, ISBN 978-2-918428-67-1. (for more details of the document see abstract )
  3. Joshua Lederberg Parasites Face a Perpetual Dilemma Volume 65, Number 2, 1999 / American Society for Microbiology News 77.
  4. Assessment of Planetary Protection Requirements for Mars Sample Return Missions (Report). National Research Council. 2009. 
  5. http://mepag.nasa.gov/reports/iMARS_FinalReport.pdf Preliminary Planning for an International Mars Sample Return Mission Report of the International Mars Architecture for the Return of Samples (iMARS) Working Group June 1, 2008
  6. http://planetaryprotection.nasa.gov/summary/msr Mars Sample Return: Issues and Recommendations. Task Group on Issues in Sample Return. National Academies Press, Washington, DC (1997).
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 http://mepag.jpl.nasa.gov/meeting/mar-10/Li2-MSR_Dis-for-MEPAG3-17_tech_updates.pdf Mars Sample Return Discussions As presented on February 23, 2010
  8. Mars Sample Return Receiving Facility
  9. Quotes from the ESF report to assist editors in verifying the paraphrase. See 3.Life as we know it and size limits, quotes are from 3.6 From new knowledge to new requirements European Science Foundation - Mars Sample Return backward contamination - Strategic advice and requirements

    Unsterilised particles smaller than 0.01 µm would be unlikely to contain any organisms, whether free-living self-replicating (the smallest free-living self-replicating microorganisms observed are in the range of 0.12–0,2 µm, i.e. more than one order of magnitude larger), GTA-type (the smallest GTA observed is 0,03 µm, i.e. three times larger) or virus-type (the smallest GTA observed is 0,017 µm, i.e. almost twice as large). This level should be considered as the bottom line basic requirement when designing the mission systems and operation.

    They then go on in view of the almost negligible chance of a GTA potential for large-scale effects on the Earth's biosphere, that

    The release of particles larger than 0.01 µm but smaller than 0.05µm can be considered as tolerable if it can be demonstrated that such a range is the best achievable at reasonable cost.

    They recommend that in that case the requirements would need to be independently reviewed by a panel of experts to determine if it is the best that can be achieved at reasonable cost and if the risk is tolerable.

    Any release of a single unsterilised particle larger than 0.05 µm is not acceptable. The ESF-ESSC Study group considers that a particle smaller than 0.05 µm would be unlikely to contain a free-living microorganism, but that larger particles may bear such an organism. As self-replicating free-living organisms are likely to be the main concern following a release event, the study group considers that the release of a particle larger than 0.05 µm is not acceptable under any circumstance.

  10. Mars Sample Return Receiving Facility - A Draft Test Protocol for Detecting Possible Biohazards in Martian Samples Returned to Earth (PDF) (Report). 2002. A Sample Return Facility will require combining technologies used for constructing maximum containment laboratories (e.g. Biosafety Level 4 labs), which will be needed to ensure protection of Earth from the Mars samples, with cleanroom technologies, which will be needed to protect the Mars samples from Earth contamination.

    • Such an integrated facility is not currently available.

    Planetary Protection Requires Negative Air Flow to Protect Against Environmental Contamination Planetary Science and Planetary Protection Require Positive Air Flow to Protect Samples from Terrestrial Contamination
      line feed character in |title= at position 19 (help)
  11. A Draft Test Protocol for Detecting Possible Biohazards in Martian Samples Returned to Earth
  12. [http://www.lpi.usra.edu/meetings/lpsc2005/pdf/1395.pdf CLEANROOM ROBOTICS – APPROPRIATE TECHNOLOGY FOR A SAMPLE RECEIVING FACILITY ? 2005 update on the Draft Test Protocol ].
  13. 2010 Mars Sample Return Orbiter decadal survey:

    The NASA Planetary Protection Officer commissioned the development of a draft test protocol that would represent one “necessary and sufficient” approach to evaluate the safety of the samples while safeguarding the purity of the samples from terrestrial contamination. A Draft Test Protocol for Detecting Possible Biohazards in Martian Samples Returned to Earth was published in October 2002 [7]. In 2003, three architectural design teams independently examined the scope, approach, cost, and technology required for the SRF, using the Draft Test Protocol for requirements. The approaches varied from allrobotic handling of samples to more traditional glove box implementations. The studies indicated that the principles and techniques required are generally mature. Biosafety laboratories, the NASA Lunar Sample Facility, pharmaceutical laboratories, and electronic fabrication cleanrooms perform most of the required individual functions. However, there are some areas needing early development, such as ensuring sample preservation and bio-safety together, representing new challenges that were addressed by techniques like dual-walled containers (and gloves) with positive pressure clean inert gas in between the walls. This, as well as some further development in ultra-clean sample manipulation, safe and pure transport of samples, and sample sterilization techniques, are planned in the technology program

  14. "7: "Sample-Receiving Facility and Program Oversight"". Assessment of Planetary Protection Requirements for Mars Sample Return Missions (Report). National Research Council. 2009. p. 59. It has been estimated that the planning, design, site selection, environmental reviews, approvals, construction, commissioning, and pre-testing of a proposed SRF will occur 7 to 10 years before actual operations begin. In addition, 5 to 6 years will likely be required for refinement and maturation of SRF-associated technologies for safely containing and handling samples to avoid contamination and to further develop and refine biohazard-test protocols. Many of the capabilities and technologies will either be entirely new or will be required to meet the unusual challenges of integration into an overall (end-to-end) Mars sample return program.  Unknown parameter |http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id= ignored (help)
  15. Mars Sample Return: Issues and Recommendations (Planetary Protection Office Summary) Task Group on Issues in Sample Return. National Academies Press, Washington, DC (1997)
  16. "7: "Sample-Receiving Facility and Program Oversight"". Assessment of Planetary Protection Requirements for Mars Sample Return Missions (Report). National Research Council. 2009. p. 59. It has been estimated that the planning, design, site selection, environmental reviews, approvals, construction, commissioning, and pre-testing of a proposed SRF will occur 7 to 10 years before actual operations begin.17,18,19 In addition, 5 to 6 years will likely be required for refinement and maturation of SRF-associated technologies for safely containing and handling samples to avoid contamination and to further develop and refine biohazard-test protocols. Many of the capabilities and technologies will either be entirely new or will be required to meet the unusual challenges of integration into an overall (end-to-end) Mars sample return program.  Unknown parameter |http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id= ignored (help)
  17. Mars Sample Return backward contamination – Strategic advice and requirements see 7.2: Responsibility and liability of States
  18. Quote to assist editors to verify the summary:

    Under the Liability Convention (United Nations, 1971), the launching State is liable for “damages caused by the space object”. If a sample has detrimental consequences on Earth, it may be considered that the State having launched the spacecraft is liable under this convention (absolute liability without any ceiling either in amount or in time; Liability Convention Article 1 – loss of life, personal injury or impairment; or loss of or damage to property of States or of persons, natural or juridical, or property of international intergovernmental organisations).

    See: Mars Sample Return backward contamination – Strategic advice and requirements 7.2: Responsibility and liability of States}}
  19. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named race
  20. 20.0 20.1 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named Race
  21. Carl Sagan,The Cosmic Connection - an Extraterrestrial Perspective (1973) ISBN 0521783038
  22. Carl Sagan Cosmos Random House Publishing Group, 6 Jul 2011
  23. International Committee Against Mars Sample Return
  24. Robert Zubrin "Contamination From Mars: No Threat", The Planetary Report July/Aug. 2000, P.4–5
  25. transcription of a tele-conference interview with ROBERT ZUBRIN conducted on March 30, 2001 by the class members of STS497 I, "Space Colonization"; Instructor: Dr. Chris Churchill