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Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
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First Mars samples are headed to Earth. What are the risks?

A Mars Space Flight team member warns that people need to be prepared for what's coming.

Image source: Marat Gilyadzinov/unsplash
  • A mission to and from Mars aims to bring back signs or examples of life.
  • Expect material direct from the Red Planet around 2031.
  • A special lab to quarantine the samples is being designed.

With potentially habitable exoplanets continually being found, with water ice on the moon, and with verified military videos showing jaw-dropping who-knows-whats in our skies, it's seeming more and more likely that life exists elsewhere in the universe. In some form or another. The day feels increasingly imminent on which humankind will be called to accept a profound realignment. If and when this happens, it'll be a deeply-felt shock, forcing, among other things, a reassessment of human-centric faith systems as well the relevance of national/tribal loyalties.

If nothing else happens first, there's 2031 to consider if all goes according to plan. That's when NASA and ESI currently plan to return the first samples to Earth from Mars, samples that scientists hope will contain signs, if not examples, of Martian microbial life. Sheri Klug Boonstra of Arizona State University's Mars Space Flight Facility recently sounded an alarm: It's time to start consciously preparing the public to definitively learn we're not alone.

Bracing ourselves against anti-science attitudes and sound bites

Image source: MisterStock/Mooi Design/Shutterstock/Big Think

Klug Boonstra is a science-education specialist and principal investigator of NASA's Lucy Student Pipeline and Competency Enabler Program. Speaking at the American Geophysical Unions' conference in December, she asserted that participants in the international Mars Sample Return Campaign (MSRC) should take seriously the ramifications of the project on society. She suggests this effort be considered equal in importance to the project's other objectives. "The public has to be a major part of the equation," Boonstra says. "We don't want to be in the position where we're just getting the information out when the public hears that the rocks are coming back."

No plague on mankind

Image source: science_photo/Shutterstock

Boonstra is concerned in particular with the possibility that laypeople may become terrified at the thought of bringing to Earth infectious new microbes or other biomaterials. With Ebola fresh in our minds, it's not an unreasonable concern, so Boonstra considers it important that the MSRC communicate the steps being taken to assure this doesn't happen.

While the likelihood of such an outcome is viewed as small — presuming we can predict with confidence the possible mechanisms of extraterrestrial contamination — MSRC plans to throughly vet the Mars samples at a Sample Receiving Facility (SRF) constructed for the purpose. The as-yet-unbuilt facility at a site not yet selected will guard against problems in both directions: Nothing would be able to contaminate the samples, and samples wouldn't be able to in any way leak out. The plan is to design and construct the SRF using to the standards of Biosafety Level 4 labs that safely house super-bugs such as Ebola as a baseline, according to Canadian Space Agency's Tim Haltigin.

The MSRC plan

Image source: ESA

While materials from Mars have been seen on Earth before, carried here in meteorites, this is the first time we'll have an up-close-and-personal look at pristine samples. MSRC is a joint effort of NASA and the European Space Agency. The preliminary plan is still being refined, but the probable broad strokes are clear.

In 2026, two launches will occur. The ESA's Earth Return Orbiter (ERO) will be sent into Mars orbit. NASA's Sample Retrieval Lander (SRL) will drop a craft into Jezero Crater, near the landing site of NASA's Mars 2020 rover. The lander will contain the ESA Sample Fetch Rover (SFR) as well as a small rocket, the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV).

As ERO orbits the red planet, the SRF will collect samples, packing them into sealed tubes and eventually carting them over to the MAV. The SRF will also have the option of stashing them on the 2020, which would also be able to bring them to the MAV.

When ready, the MAV will lift off with samples and jettison the container of them into orbit. ERO will catch the container, retrieve its contents and then dump the enclosure en route back to Earth, and us.

Neom, Saudi Arabia's $500 billion megacity, reaches its next phase

Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.

Credit: Neom
Technology & Innovation
  • The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
  • The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
  • It will feature an artificial moon, cloud seeding, robotic gladiators and flying taxis.
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Tuberculosis vaccine shows promise in reducing COVID deaths

A new study suggests that a century-old vaccine may reduce the severity of coronavirus cases.

Closeup of a BCG vaccination.

Credit: Kekyalyaynen.
Surprising Science
  • A new study finds a country's tuberculosis BCG vaccination is linked to its COVID-19 mortality rate.
  • More BCG vaccinations is connected to fewer severe coronavirus cases.
  • The study is preliminary and more research is needed to support the findings.
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Human brains remember certain words more easily than others

A study of the manner in which memory works turns up a surprising thing.

Image Point Fr / Shutterstock
Mind & Brain
  • Researchers have found that some basic words appear to be more memorable than others.
  • Some faces are also easier to commit to memory.
  • Scientists suggest that these words serve as semantic bridges when the brain is searching for a memory.

Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.

The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

An odd find

Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock

Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.

"Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."

Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.

The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."

Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.

"We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."

Why understanding memory matters

person holding missing piece from human head puzzle

Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock

"Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.

If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."

Party chat

Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock

Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.

Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."

spinning 3D model of a brain

Temporal lobes

Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia

At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.

Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.

In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.

Seek, find

Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."

He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.

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