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By Mr. Curmudgeon:
Back in the late 1990s, I wrote a story concerning NASA’s proposed Mars Sample Return Mission: An ambitious plan to land a probe on the Red Planet, collect soil samples, rocket them to an orbiting capsule, and back to Earth.
During my research, I came across a curious factoid: Six months earlier, NASA created the Office of Planetary Protection to shield “Earth from possible life forms that may be returned from other solar system bodies.” In a telephone conversation with the office’s director, John Rummel, he informed me that NASA had previously tasked him with planet-protecting duties … but in a part-time capacity. That provided the perfect lead for my story: “Not so long ago, the role of guarding the Earth from extraterrestrial invaders was only a part-time job.”
Then the story took a strange turn. I discovered NASA was working with the Center for Disease Control to develop protocols for handling extraterrestrial material, even designing a portable bio-container to deposit Mars soil samples soon after the probe holding them crash-landed in the soft mud flats of a military test range in Utah.
According to NASA documents, Martian soil samples would be given a bio-safety level 4 designation – the same as the deadly Ebola virus – until proven safe.
An ominous report issued by the National Academy of Sciences (“The Quarantine and Certification of Martian Samples”) states, “Central to the topic of quarantining samples and certifying them for release from quarantine is the problem of detecting life in them, that is, determining if life is present or has recently been present. The problem is compounded by the possibility of life forms that function and reproduce in a manner outside the range of experiences with terrestrial [Earth] life.”
Then I happened upon the International Committee Against the Mars Sample Return website. “In light of the loss due to human error of many of the spacecraft sent to Mars over the course of the space age, the International Committee Against Mars Sample Return (ICAMSR) urges the scientific and environmental communities to consider avoiding the return of Martian samples directly to Earth as problems with electronic circuitry malfunctions are common as well as accidental impacts.” They suggest using the International Space Station as a safe, off-planet venue for studying Martian soil samples.
However, one paragraph on the website captured my attention: “Two NASA Viking … astrobiologists, Gilbert V. Levin and Patricia Ann Straat, have published numerous papers stating … they discovered living microorganisms in Martian soil,” and that an “instrument put on both Viking Mars landers tested Martian soil nine times under a variety of conditions at two different landing sites.”
Living microorganisms discovered on Mars by two American space probes from the 1970s? Could this be true? Poring over NASA documents relating to the Viking missions, I was shocked to find that they confirmed microbial life was indeed detected … but credited the findings to “exotic chemistry.”
That’s when I called astrobiologist Gilbert Levin for a chat. “Microorganisms thrive in the sand dunes of Death Valley,” Levin told me, “and there would be just about that much moisture present on Mars.” Levin insisted returning Martian soil to Earth posed a risk, “You’ve only got one Earth. You don’t take that risk if you’re rational.”
Last Tuesday, National Public Radio reported the SAM chemical analyzer onboard the Mars Curiosity rover detected something that “is gonna be one for the history books, it looks really good,” Curiosity’s principle investigator John P. Grotzinger told NPR.
Although Grotzingerr refused to say what exactly the rover discovered – waiting for additional verification – speculation in the scientific press suggests the rover may have found evidence of past … or existing microbial life.
“Is there any evidence of life in the planet’s past?” asks the Jet Propulsion Laboratory website, “If so, could any of these tiny living creatures still exist today? Imagine how exciting it would be to answer, ‘Yes!!’”
The discovery will likely be announced at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union gathering in San Francisco early this December.
The question then arises: Will NASA attempt to bring to Earth what lurks in the red Martian soil of Gale Crater?
Will Curiosity kill the cat?