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.

Yug, age 7, and Alia, age 10, both entered Let Grow's "Independence Challenge" essay contest.

Photos: Courtesy of Let Grow
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • The coronavirus pandemic may have a silver lining: It shows how insanely resourceful kids really are.
  • Let Grow, a non-profit promoting independence as a critical part of childhood, ran an "Independence Challenge" essay contest for kids. Here are a few of the amazing essays that came in.
  • Download Let Grow's free Independence Kit with ideas for kids.
Keep reading Show less

Four philosophers who realized they were completely wrong about things

Philosophers like to present their works as if everything before it was wrong. Sometimes, they even say they have ended the need for more philosophy. So, what happens when somebody realizes they were mistaken?

Sartre and Wittgenstein realize they were mistaken. (Getty Images)
Culture & Religion

Sometimes philosophers are wrong and admitting that you could be wrong is a big part of being a real philosopher. While most philosophers make minor adjustments to their arguments to correct for mistakes, others make large shifts in their thinking. Here, we have four philosophers who went back on what they said earlier in often radical ways. 

Keep reading Show less

Here are 3 things white people can do right now to help #BLM

Remaining silent is being complicit.

Demonstrators pause for a moment of silence during a protest over the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis Police officer, in McCarren Park in the borough of Brooklyn on June 3, 2020 in New York City.

Photo by Scott Heins/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Protests around the world are demanding an end to police discrimination and violence against black citizens in America.
  • Author and activist Dax-Devlon Ross offers advice on how white people can help during this moment.
  • Ross's suggestions include thinking and voting locally, supporting black-owned businesses, and practicing self-reflection.
Keep reading Show less

A 'Strawberry moon' eclipse is happening on Friday. Here's how to watch it from home

On Friday, the moon will pass through the Earth's outer shadow, known as the penumbra.

GLASTONBURY, ENGLAND - JUNE 20: A full moon rises behind Glastonbury Tor as people gather to celebrate the summer solstice on June 20, 2016 in Somerset, England.

Matt Cardy / Getty
Surprising Science
  • Two lunar events will occur on Friday: a full moon and a penumbral eclipse.
  • A penumbral eclipse occurs when the moon passes through the Earth's outer shadow, causing the moon to appear slightly darker.
  • The eclipse will only be visible to some countries, but the Virtual Telescope Project is providing a livestream.
Keep reading Show less
Scroll down to load more…