This was an opportunity for the public to give your feedback to NASA about their Mars sample return mission plans - can submit your comments to NASA here as a public comment.
This is for their draft environmental impact statement which they plan to submit later this year.
My comment is here
Comments were open to 11:59 May 15, ET, 2022. They got 170 comments (with some duplication). I
THEY WILL KEEP EARTH SAFE
If there is validity to what I or the others there say they have to take account of it in a legal process of at least 6 years likely far more - it's not up to NASA. Numerous US agencies will make sure it is safe as well as the WHO, FAO etc internationally.
For a list of some of the agencies that are likely to get involved see “AGENCIES LIKELY TO GET INVOLVED” below
In 1969, for Apollo 11, NEPA didn't exist. NASA set up an interagency panel but not public. This panel asked NASA modify its plans, to keep Earth safe, but NASA vetoed them.
Today, NASA has no veto.
Any of these agencies can require changes from NASA.
BACKGROUND INFORMATION - NASA PLANS TO RETURN A SAMPLE FROM MARS - AND THEY NEED TO KEEP EARTH SAFE - AND ARE ASKING FOR COMMENTS TO MAKE SURE THEY THINK OF EVERYTHING - THIS IS PART OF A VERY LONG LEGAL PROCESS THEY HAVE TO GO THROUGH
First, there is no danger. NASA plans to return a sample from Mars. NASA already has a rover called Perseverance collecting the samples it wants to return to Earth.
Perseverance drills the samples and collects them, and then it drops the sample tubes on the ground for another rover to pick up and return to Earth.
ESA is going to send that rover to Mars in the late 2020s to pick up the samples and return them to Earth.
This is about making sure that we keep Earth safe when those samples are returned.
The question is whether there might be Martian life in the samples collected by Perseverance. Tiny Martian microbes. If there is life in the sample, NASA needs to make sure it can't harm us here on Earth. Because life on Mars might be unrelated to Earth life even a completely different type of life.
We have many laws to keep Earth safe and NASA is about to start the very long legal process to make sure we are all safe from whatever they return in the sample.
Most likely there is no life in this sample but in case there is, they need to keep Earth safe.
Anyone who cared about it could comment, as part of this process to make sure they think of everything and look at everything to keep Earth safe.
In my comment I say we need to return them first to a high orbit where they are not connected to earth's biosphere to test them for life and see what's in them before we return them to Earth.
WHAT ARE OTHERS SAYING SO FAR? MOST ONES I’VE READ RECOMMEND TESTING THE SAMPLES FOR LIFE FIRST BEFORE RETURNING THEM TO EARTH
There are 147 comments as of writing this.
Many of the comments say that they think NASA should test the samples for life first before returning them to Earth and the ones that make specific proposals generally suggest returning them to the Moon or to the ISS.
I explain in my own comment (draft) why those two don't work.
- ISS doesn't break the chain of contact with Mars
- the Moon is difficult for us to reach still - and in the future we may have explorers and tourists visit the Moon often - so COSPAR recommend that we extend protection of Earth to the Moon.
[More details at the end of this post]
From the comments it's clear the public care about this and so it's bound to get a lot of careful scrutiny.
There are over 150 comments and I haven't read them all yet. So I don't know if any others recommend a high orbit like above GEO as the place to return it to first. That is my proposal which I plan to submit as a comment soon.
If you notice anything in my comment needs to be fixed do say.
MY PROPOSAL - NASA AND ESAS SHOULD EXAMINE THE MARS SAMPLES FOR LIFE FIRST IN A SAFE ORBIT WELL ABOVE GEOSTATIONARY EARTH ORBIT - BUT THEY CAN RETURN STERILIZED SUBSAMPLES IMMEDIATELY
My suggestion is that NASA and ESA should return the samples to a high orbit above GEO in a place called the “Laplace plane” which is where Earth’s ring particles would orbit if we had a ring system - and test them for life there first.
This orbit is as far as you can get from both the Earth and the Moon and the Laplace plane constrains the particles so they can’t hit Earth or the satellites in Geostationary Earth orbit.
MY GRAPHICAL ABSTRACT
Earth's biosphere is protected by many laws that didn't exist in 2039.
Legal process may be >> 6 years
Legal process beings 2022, final technology decision 2028 earliest
Technology doesn't exist yet for ESF requirement to contain 100% of particles at 0.05 microns (best optical microscope 0.2 microns)
From final legal decision, 9+ years to build
2 years to train technicians
Earliest ready: 2028 + 11 = 2039
Space missions are REQUIRED to keep Earth safe
Not enough time to return unsterilized samples to Earth's biosphere before 2039
So we can
1. sterilize all samples or
2. test for life first - return samples to a safe orbit above GEO and examine them with remotely controlled life detection instruments designed by astrobiologists
With 2., we can return sterilized sub-samples immediately
Simple legal process
I plan to attach this plus my draft comment and my preprint which is here:
If the idea is to use a facility on the Moon to let humans handle the samples - the same issues of quarantine apply as for a facility on Earth - the issues of a symptomless superspreader, or mirror life becoming part of the human microbiome etc, since at some point the humans would return to Earth.
MY COMMENT FOR NASA
My comment is herehttps://www.regulations.gov/comment/NASA-2022-0002-0170
Are you aware of the ESF Mars Sample Return study (Ammann et al, 2012:14ff)? It said "The release of a single unsterilized particle larger than 0.05 μm is not acceptable under any circumstances”. This is to contain starvation limited ultramicrobacteria which pass through 0.1 micron filters (Miteva et al, 2005). Any Martian microbes may be starvation limited.
This 100% containment at 0.05 microns is well beyond capabilities of BSL4 facilities. Even ULPA level 17 filters only contain 99.999995 percent of particles tested only to 0.12 microns (BS, 2009:4).
It IS possible to filter 0.05 micron particles from water, under high pressure. One study used carbon nanotubes loaded with silver. It eliminated polioviruses at 0.03 microns in diameter (Kim et al, 2016) (Singh et al, 2020:6.3).
However, this technology doesn't seem to exist for aerosol filters.
An experimental 6-layer charged nanofiber filter intended for coronaviruses filters out 88% of ambient aerosol particles at 0.05 microns (Leung et al, 2020).
Even this would not achieve 100% containment.
The ESF also set a minimum one in a million probability of release of a single unsterilized particle at 0.01 microns. This is to contain gene transfer agents which transfer novel capabilities overnight in sea water to unrelated species of archaea (Maxmen, 2010)..
The ESF said both requirements need periodic review. This might reduce those figures further.
Benner et al suggest structures in the Martian meteorite ALH84001 might be fossils of earlier life without ribosomes or proteins; simpler “RNA world” cells (Benner et al, 2010: 37).
Panel 4 for the 1999 “Size limits” workshop concluded that such a primitive free living lifeform could be as small as 0.014 microns in diameter and 0.12 microns in length, if there is an efficient mechanism for packing its RNA. They measured one of the smallest structures at approximately this size (Board et al, 1999: 117).
A review board would also consider research since 2012 into small synthetic minimal cells (Lachance, 2019) and protocells (Joyce et al, 2018).
Biologists have also seriously considered a shadow biosphere of nanobes (Cleland, 2019, pp 213 - 214) which could co-exist with modern life. None were found, but this shows such a possibility is biologically credible.
Smaller cells have a larger surface area to volume ratio, and so take up nutrients more efficiently, an advantage in an environment with low nutrient concentrations. Small cells also avoid protozoan grazing (Ghuneim et al, 2018).
If Mars has early life nanobes, even with less sophisticated biology, these nanobes might be able to occupy a shadow biosphere on Earth.
An example worst case would be Martian mirror life. With the right enzymes (isomerases), this might be able to convert normal organics in an ecosystem into mirror organics only available to mirror life, or the very rare terrestrial microbes able to make use of mirror organics.
Uhran et al estimate a minimum of 6-7 years to complete the legal process, from filing the environmental impact statement. This may be significantly extended if challenged in court. International bodies like the WHO and FAO likely get involved and international treaties triggered (Uhran et al, 2019).
NASA is required to provide preliminary design and engineering details for the Sample Return Facility before they start a build, and with a life-cycle cost over $250 million must also commit to Congress on cost and schedule (NASA, Science Engineering Handbook: section 3.5).
However, the legal process may change requirements, so should be completed before we launch the Earth return orbiter, Earth Entry Vehicle, and Mars Ascent Vehicle, or start to build the receiving facility.
Urhan et al estimate 9 years to build or repurpose the facility and 2 years to train scientists because of many lapses in Apollo sample handling. If the build starts in 2028, the earliest the facility could be ready is 2039.
The legal process might also conclude that the required technology doesn't exist yet.
I propose two possible solutions in my article.
1. sterilize samples during the return journey, perhaps with nanoscale X-ray emitters. Present day life in the sample would be recognizable after sterilization OR
2. return unsterilized samples to a safe orbit where astrobiologists study them remotely using miniature instruments designed for life detection on Mars. Return sterilized sub-samples to Earth immediately;
As a safe orbit, this paper recommends the Laplace plane above GEO where ring particles would orbit if we had a ring system.
A return to the ISS doesn’t break the chain of contact with Mars.
The Moon needs to be kept free of contamination for future astronauts and tourists (COSPAR, 2011)
The preprint examines ways to increase chances of viable spores, such as dust samples (Jakovsky et al, 2021)
This may make, 2 preferrable.
Details and cites: see preprint https://osf.io/rk2gd (attached).
And high res version of my preprint uploaded here:
Latest version here
NASA expected to be legally required to sterilize Mars samples to protect Earth's biosphere - 17 years minimum for unsterilized sample return with existing laws - proposal for preliminary telerobotic study above GEO
WHAT ABOUT THE ISS? - A RETURN TO THE ISS DOESN’T BREAK THE CHAIN OF CONTACT WTH EARTH
I see a fair few suggestions amongst the comments to return the samples to the ISS. This doesn’t work because it doesn’t break the chain of contact with Earth.
The idea of a chain of contact is that microbes can be transferred from one surface to another. So nothing that contacts Earth’s biosphere unsterilized should touch a surface that has been exposed to the Martian environment. Also - microbes can be transferred many times - so in turn if something does touch a surface that could be contaminated with Martian life, that in turn counts as contaminated and so on.
Eventually the astronauts return to Earth. Their spacecraft that they use to return to Earth is part of the chain of contact with the ISS and so also, part of the chain of contact with Mars.
Also, they can have Martian life on their skin, mi or in their clothes. They could also be infected, and since we have no idea what Martian life could be, there’s a possibility that an astronaut could become lifelong symptomless super spreaders like Typhoid Mary who had typhoid but never got ill and spread it to the people she cooked for - but as well as that, humans aren’t the only lifeform we need to be careful about.
In my draft comment I mention one possibility might be nanobe mirror life - perhaps early life, simpler cells but because they are so small and based on mirror life, ordinary large terrestrial life would ignore them. These nanobes would likely be harmless to astronauts but could gradually change the organics in ecosystems into mirror organics indigestible to most life. Even if we knew that they were there, and had infected the ISS, it would be impossible to stop Martian nanobes from returning to Earth from the ISS.
This isn’t science fiction. Mirror life is just life with everything reflected as in a mirror - the DNA spirals the other way, the proteins and enzymes are all in their mirror form and so on. Mirror life should work just like non mirror life and it is a possibility for life from Mars.
So - returning samples to the ISS is not enough to protect Earth from an unknown form of life.
This could work if we knew what we were returning and what it’s capabilities are depending on what it is. But it doesn’t work as a way to contain any conceivable type of extraterrestrial microbe.
RETURNING SAMPLES TO THE MOON MAKES THEM HARDER TO STUDY AND RISKS CONTAMINATING THE MOON WHICH MAY ONE DAY BE A DESTINATION FOR ASTRONAUTS, EXPLORERS AND EVEN TOURISTS FROM EARTH
Another common suggestion in the comments list is to return the samples to the Moon - however COSPAR has said that the Moon should be protected in the same way as Earth.
"(The Moon must be protected from back contamination to retain freedom from planetary protection requirements on Earth-Moon travel)".
COSPAR recommendations don’t constitute international binding law or a treaty, - but it makes sense because in the future we may have astronauts going back and forth between Earth and the Moon, including space tourists if we get easy flight to / from the Moon.
If we return Mars samples to the Moon, a crash landing risks contaminating the lunar environment and causing issues with astronauts, explorers and tourists exploring the Moon.
In any case it is far harder to study samples on the Moon than in a high orbit around Earth which is already easily accesesible as we often put Earth observation satellites into Geostationary Earth Orbit and it’s not far above that orbit.
If the idea is to use a facility on the Moon to let humans handle the samples - the same issues of quarantine apply as for a facility on Earth - the issues of a symptomless superspreader, or mirror life becoming part of the human microbiome etc, since at some point the humans would return to Earth.
NO LEGISLATION AT THE TIME OF APOLLO 11 - THOSE WERE SIMPLER TIMES - WE HAD VERY LITTLE IDEA OF THE IMPORTANCE OF ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES BACK IN 1969 COMPARED TO TODAY
People nowadays are FAR MORE AWARE than they were for Apollo when nobody even gave it any thought in the general public. I was one of those watching on TV as the Apollo command module splash landed and I never even gave thought to them opening the command module hatch to the open sea! Not back then. Nor did anyone comment on it that I knew of
I now know that back then Carl Sagan was appalled but that wasn’t widely known at the time.
Carl Sagan put it like this:
“The one clear lesson that emerged from our experience in attempting to isolate Apollo-returned lunar samples is that mission controllers are unwilling to risk the certain discomfort of an astronaut – never mind his death – against the remote possibility of a global pandemic. When Apollo 11, the first successful manned lunar lander, returned to Earth – it was a spaceworthy, but not a very seaworthy, vessel – the agreed-upon quarantine protocol was immediately breached. It was judged better to open the Apollo 11 hatch to the air of the Pacific Ocean and, for all we then knew, expose the Earth to lunar pathogens, than to risk three seasick astronauts. So little concern was paid to quarantine that the aircraft-carrier crane scheduled to lift the command module unopened out of the Pacific was discovered at the last moment to be unsafe. Exit from Apollo 11 was required in the open sea.”
The view of Vishniac of the National Academy of Sciences is summarized by Meltzer as :
Opening and venting the spacecraft to Earth’s atmosphere after splashdown would, in his view, make the rest of Apollo’s elaborate quarantine program pointless.
The chairman of the Interagency Committee, David Sencer, from Public Health Service said these plans violated the concept of biological containment
Now though, we all know how important it is to protect Earth's environment and have numerous laws to make sure it is safe. They were rather naive at the time of Apollo - but luckily the Moon turned out to be sterile so it didn't matter.
HOW LEGISLATION THAT PROTECTS EARTH’S BIOSPHERE TODAY - FOR THE USA IT IS ALL BASED ON NEPA
In the USA the legal process starts with this Environmental Impact statement, required under NEPA which became law after Apollo 11 and 12, and so didn’t apply to those missions.
The NEPA documents for the EIS sets out possible effects of the sample return along with alternative prroposals. It’s open for the public to read.
NASA would need to cooperate with many other Federal agencies. In 1969 they collaborated with
- Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, now known as Department of Health and Human Service, which includes the CDC.
- Department of Agriculture
But with the Mars sample return they will likely have to collaborate with
- CDC which provides guidelines for laboratories to prevent spread of diseases studied in labs, and is responsible for an import program for import of dangerous biological agents
- Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service for infectious diseases that may affect livestock
Also for Apollo, NASA set up an Interagency Committee on Back Contamination (ICBC) which had representatives from
- Public Health Service in the National Communicable Disease Center,
- the Department of Agriculture,
- the Department of Interior,
- and the National Academy of Science
In 1969, the International Committee on Back Contamination didn’t have much power in the end for several reasons.
NONE OF THIS WOULD BE PERMITTED TODAY
- their meetings were all held in secret, with no public review (wouldn’t be permitted today)
- NASA set up the agency in such a way that it could veto any suggestions (required a unanimous decision and NASA was one of the ones had to agree to changes)
- NASA did use its veto to allow the Apollo astronauts to land in the open sea and open up the hatch which other scientists at the time said made the rest of the quarantine provisions meaningless.
In 1969, before NEPA, there was no legal process - NASA published their protocols on the day of launch of Apollo 11 and we now know they were inadequatae even by the scientific standards of the time - but no-one else excep the ICBC got to see these protocols.
Those were very different days!
But NASA won’t have a veto today.
AGENCIES LIKELY TO GET INVOLVED
Urhan et al recommend that NASA might set up a similar board which would also include
- Department of Homeland Security,
- Federal Aviation Administration because the sample returns through the atmosphere
- Department of Transportation for bringing the sample to the receiving laboratory from where it touches down and to distribute to other laboratories
Other agencies likely to get involved
- Occupational Safety and Health Administration - for any rules about quarantine for technicians working at the facility
- U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Coast Guard to bring back sample in case of an water landing or the Department of Defense if it lands on land, likely the Utah Test & Training Ranges
- Department of the Interior which is the steward for public land and wild animals which could be affected by release of Martian microbes
- Fish and Wildlife Service for the DoI who maintain an invasive species containment program and may see back contamination as a possible source of invasive species
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)'s fishery program for sea landing in case it could affect marine life and NOAA fisheries
- Integrated Consortium of Laboratory Networks (ICLN) for laboratories that respond to disasters - a partnership of the Department of Agriculture, Department of Defense, Department of Energy, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Department of the Interior, Department of Justice, Department of State, and Environmental Protection Agency
- environmental regulations of international partners - for ESA they are very similar but may differ in details
- The state where the receiving laboratory is situationed may have regulations on regulations on invasive species, environmental impacts, disposal of waste, and possession of pathogens, similarly also for any states the sample may have to transit to from the landing site to the facility
Margaret Race gives more details in her paper
She says that experts won’t know whether the sample should be classified as potentially:
- an infectious agent
- an exotic species outside its normal range
- a truly novel organism (as for genetic engineering)
- a hazardous material
Which it is would change which laws and agencies would be involved.
Presidential directive NSC-25 requires a review of large scale effects which is done after the NEPA process is completed.
There are numerous treaties conventions and international agreements relating to environmental protection or health that could apply.
Including those to do with
- proteection of living resources of the sea
- air pollution (long range pollution that crosses country boundaries)
- world health, etc
Individual groups in other countries could invoke domestic laws such as laws on accidents at sea or on land if they argue back contamination of Earth can cause measurable damage.
Scientists are likely to focus on
- technical details
- mission requirements
- engineering details
- costs of the space operaations and hardware
General public are likely to focus on
- risks and accidents
- whether NASA and other institutions can be trusted to do the mission
- worst case scenarios
- whether the methods of handing the sample, quarnatine and containment of any martian life are adequate
I go into more detail in my
- . NASA expected to be legally required to sterilize Mars samples to protect Earth's biosphere at least until 2039 – minimum 17 years to prepare as current technology can't meet ESF requirement for extraterrestrial life air filters (0.05 microns) and NASA needs legal clarity to start the build – recommendation to return unsterilized samples to a safe orbit above GEO, examine with remote controlled life detection instruments - and return sterilized sub-samples to Earth immediately
WHAT ABOUT ELON MUSK - CANT’ HE JUST GO TO MARS AND BACK AGAIN WITHOUT NEEDING TO GO THROUGH ALL THIS? ACTUALLY, NO HE CAN’T
I’ve added this for readers who are space colonization / space settlement enthusiasts as well as to help people who may be scared that Elon Musk as a wealthy billionnaire could somehow evade the precautions needed to protect Earth.
No, Elon Musk isn’t above the law and billionaires are often prevented from doing things they want to do that turn out to be not permitted. And keeping astronauts and Earth safe is sure to be as much of a priority for space colonization enthusiasts as anyone, if they are on the same page as everyone else that it is indeed something we need to protect against.
- Mars colonization enthusiasts focus on the Outer Space Treaty. Yes. that indeed is very weak.
- But Elon Musk would have to file an Environmental Impact Statement just as NASA do- that is NOT about the OST.
He would have to prove his mission has no harmful impact on human health, on food, agriculture, fisheries, on ecosystems, numerous agencies would get involved and numerous laws that didn't exist at the time of Apollo.
Those laws are NOT weak. They CAN stop activities of billionaires like Elon Musk or anyone, frequently do
The EIS for a flight to Mars and back would take at least 6-7 years to complete just as for the NASA EIS.
But it would get many other agencies involved and likely take much longer - he would need to file an EIS right away to have a decent chance of completing the legal process by 2030.
Also, the requirements on Elon Musk would be the same as for NASA whatever they turn out to bie. He certainly wouldn't be permitted to return an unsterilized rocket that could have Martian dust or atmosphere on board.
This is to protect Earth. So all the laws that protect Earth's environment are relevant.
There are some extra restrictions for NASA that wouldn’t apply to SpaceX - mainly guidelines that prevent them spending public money on something they won't be able to do.
Elon Musk wouldn't have those requirements. He could spend billions on the project if he wished, risking losing it all if he doesn't get permission.
NASA can't do that. But the rest would be the same.
I hope during the discussion of the Mars sample returnthat Mars colonization enthusiasts like Elon Musk will come to realize that there is a small but not insignfiicant possibility that there could be life on Mars that is hazardous to humans or to Earth's biosphere.
- some Martian disease of biofilms able to infect lungs in the same way it infects a biofilm, like Legionnaire's disease
- a fungal disease
- Or Martian life is not recognized by our immune system - the best case is taht Martian life is mystified by terrestrial biology and can make nothing of it, but in the worst case it’s the other way around, our immune system is mystified by Martian life, doesn’t recognize it as life and has no evolved defences to it.
It is only sensible to find out what is there and whether it can harm humans or our biosphere before landing on the planet. He is very confident that there is no life there that we could harm in any ay or that could harm us. But he is just a CEO of a company and not an astrobiologist. He follows Robert Zubrin and Zubrin has a rhetorical style that is very dismissive of any precautions to protect Earth. But when it comes to the legal process these issues will be looked at properly by experts and they won't be impressed by Zubrin's colourful analogies of canada geese flying into the US from Canada. Those don't prove anything.
I hope that Elon Musk and other enthusiasts will realilze this is sensible. There is no need to rush humans to the surface of Mars. We can study from orbit first via telepresence and if we use his technology or other entreprenerus to do that we can find out if there is life on Mars and if so whether it is hazardous, what precautions we need to take if any, muich faster.
DISEASES ARE NOT FROM MOVIES - THE SIMPLE EXAMPLE OF MIRROR LIFE IS FEASIBLE - NOT ONLY THAT - WE MAY SOME DAY BE ABLE TO CREATE IT ON EARTH
The diseases they talk about aren't from movies. One simple example I use in my preprint is mirror life. That may sound like something from a movie, but it is a realistic possibility. If you flip DNA, RNA, the proteins, everything in a cell - basically if you could flip a microbe in a mirror it would still function. But we don't have any mirror life on Earth. So there is definitely scope for novel forms of biology and for all we know Mars could have mirror life. It's not far fetched as it would function in exactly the same way as the life we know.
We have actually started the process of step by step flipping components of a cell. It’s a major challenge as if you flip some of the components and not others it may well cease to function but they have a plan that may lead to the goal of mirror life later this century.
If we do this it will need ultra high levels of biosafety - most experts agree it needs to be far safer than a biosafety level 4 facility. See:
ANOTHER EXAMPLE - EARLY LIFE - HAS TO BE FAR SIMPLER
As another example DNA is too complex to start in one go from primitive chemicals so there has to have been some other form of life before it. But what it is we don't know though there are lots of different hypotheses - none of them use DNA. So for sure there must also be non-DNA life, the simplest idea here is RNA life which doesn't have proteins. We can't make more primitive life, we speculate about it but no way to even test the ideas with an actual model organism as that is way beyond current science.
So when you look into what we could return from Mars you need to take account of not just terrestrial life but all possible forms of exobiology, non DNA, mirror life etc. We have nothing on Earth to use as a precedent for that.
LIFE FROM MARS WOULD LIKELY LIVE IN SALTS, DUST AND BRINES THAT WOULD NEVER GET TO EARTH AFTER AN ASTEROID IMPACT
The life from Mars would likely be living in salts and dust and brines near the surface which would never get to earth after an asteroid impact.
LIFE NOT ADAPTED TO HUMANS CAN STILL BE HARMFUL
Then - we could also have related life that is not adapted to humans but harmful. Simple example fungi. There are many fungal diseases of humans, they are not adapted to us, but in some cases especially in immunocompromised patients they can be fatal. Or they cause allergies. They can infect our lungs. Some are very resistant to antibiotics.
Well, our immune system might not recognize Martian life. It might be like fungal diseases but with no resistance. Our antibiotics might not work with them as they specifically target elements of terrestrial biology such as h ow microbial cell walls function.
There is lots more like that. I go into some of it in my paper.
Some space colonization enthusiasts try to just dismiss it all saying they have a strong personalhunch that everything will be fine which is basically what Musk and Zubrin do.
You can do that but it won't impress legislators.
So in short, we do have to protect Earth.
It is indeed possible that there is no life on Mars, or that any life there is harmless to Earth and it is possibl e indeed that it can be beneficial too. I look at those possibilities in my paper.
But we can’t decide this in advance. We need to know what is there, and then we can decide what to do.
NO WAY ELON MUSK SENDS HUMANS TO MARS BY 2033 WHEN THE SAMPLES RETURN - HE MAY HAVE THE ROCKETS - BUT NOT RELIABLE LIFE SUPPORT - IT’S MINIMUM SIX MONTHS MEDVAC IN CASE OF A FIRE, EXPLOSION, OR ANY OTHER ACCIDENT - WITH NO SOURCES OF WATER OR AIR EXCEPT WHAT YOU HAVE WITH YOU - CHRIS HADFIELD SAYS MARS IS FOR THE NEXT GENERATION OF ASTRONAUTS
There is no way Elon Musk is ready to send humans to Mars by 2030. It's "Elon time". Maybe 2040 or 2050. The thing is that it's one thing to get dead humans to Mars - that's possible if he makes a big enough rocket.
But getting living humans to Mars is a far bigger challenge. They resupply the ISS every 3 months and often have to fix things with new components sent up from Earth.
The Apollo astronauts made the Moon seem easy but it's not, they came within minutes of everyone dying on several occasions e.g. the Apollo 10 when they did a test going down nearly to the surface and started spinning and only got out of the spin in time, or when Apollo 11 couldn't take off and Buzz Aldrin saved the day with the lead of a pencil as a conductor.
Or Apollo 13 - when their easiest way back was around the Moon after an accident leaving Earth orbit. If the same happened on a journey to Mars as they left Earth orbit they would only be able to come back via Mars a year later! The Moon is two days medvac away from Earth. Mars is six months when at its closest and the medvac on leaving Earth orbit is two years usually.
The retired Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, former commander of the ISS, interviewed by New Scientist, put it like this
"I think ultimately we’ll be living on the moon for a generation before we get to Mars. If the world and the moon were threatened and the only way to preserve our species was to launch from Earth, we could go to Mars with yesterday’s technology, but we would probably kill just about everybody on the way."
"It’s as if you and I were in Paris, paddling around in the Seine in little canoes saying, 'We’ve got boats, we’ve got paddles, let’s go to Australia!' Australia? We can barely cross the English Channel. We’re sort of in that boat in space exploration right now. A journey to Mars is conceivable but it’s still a lot further away than most people think."
WISE PROSPECTIVE MARS ASTRONAUTS WILL WNT TO KNOW IF THERE IS LIFE ON MARS AND IF IT IS SAFE FOR ASTRONAUTS OR FOR EARTH BEFORE THEY CONSIDER LANDING
And then - prospective Mars astronauts if they are wise will want to know if there is life on Mars and whether it has potential to harm them or Earth's biosphere before they land on the surface. They could do a lot there to find out much faster by sending lots of sterilized landers from orbit and then exploring it via telepresence.
For instance some Martian equivalent of Legionnaire's disease or a fungal disease or - it could be that Martian life is not recognized by our immune system - and in worst case we have no defences to it.
Those are all possibilities. They would be exciting missions exploring Mars from orbit via telepresence and exploring its moons and it builds up experience and assets on the surface if eventually they find it is safe to go down but they won't know that in advance as that's why you need to do it. It is possible that we find that it is not safe for human astronauts to visit Mars.
A SPECTACULAR ORBIT TO SEARCH FOR LIFE
This is the HERRO orbit :)
The sun-synchronous orbit proposed by HERRO is a spectacular one, comes in over the poles twice every Martian day and flies above opposite sides of Mars
In this video, I use a futuristic spacecraft called the “Delta Flier” in Orbiter as that was the easiest way to do it in the program I used to make the video. Apart from that, it is the same as the orbit suggested for HERRO
Video link: One Orbit Flyby, Time 100x: Mars Molniya Orbit Telerobotic Exploration in HERRO Mission
I go into all this in my preprint.
- . NASA expected to be legally required to sterilize Mars samples to protect Earth's biosphere - 17 years minimum for unsterilized sample return with existing laws - proposal for preliminary telerobotic study above GEO
This is what it would look like from inside as astronauts orbit Mars much as they orbit the Earth in the ISS.
Composite of photo from the Cupola of the ISS and Hubble photo of Mars
There are plenty of adventures on the Moon, which is also actually more habitable than earth and a far safer and easier place to attempt our first experiments at space settlement than Mars - and itch also has potential to pay for itself through exports to the nearby Earth of platinum, and ice (exported to Earth orbit for spacecraft) and space tourism amongst other possibilities.
See my Case For Moon First
Hopefully they will come to see it like that. But if Elon Musk was to send one of his spacecraft to Mars and then return it - then on the return journey the same laws apply to him as to NASA. He would be legally required to protect Earth's biosphere from potential Martian life and he wouldn't be able to do it with his rocket. Even not attempting to return a sample it is just too big, there would be dust get into it and I don't see how he could sterilize it of all life. If he could,m he could return it but not if he can't sterilize it.
For some of my blog posts at Science 2.0 on this topic:
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