A job for our planetary protection officer

NASA must develop a facility to contain samples from Mars, in case alien life exists.

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John Rummel faces a daunting job. He must build a multi-million-dollar lab no one knows how to design, to isolate organisms no one knows will survive, if they arrive on samples from a planet that no one is certain harbors life.

Isn't this overkill for roughly one pound of Martian rock and dust?

"It's simple prudence," says Dr. Rummel. He is NASA's "planetary protection officer" - a real-life "man in black" minus the Ray-Bans and fancy weaponry - charged with placing a quarantine on possible alien life forms.

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The issue is heating up as the space agency prepares for the return of samples from Mars early in the next decade.

In the real world, the lockdown facility Rummel and the agency would oversee must be kept as tight as any lab designed to handle dangerous earthly microbes and as clean as any computer-chip lab. It must also decide when and how to release samples to researchers - making it a kind of Ellis Island for microscopic interplanetary travelers.

In fact, so much research will go into the facility, according to a National Academy of Sciences panel studying the issue, that NASA had best get cracking if it hopes to have the facility ready in time to receive samples, currently slated for return in 2014.

Those samples are vital to one of the most fundamental questions surrounding the red planet: Could it have hosted primitive life forms?

Red-planet puzzle

Returning samples for detailed study is "perhaps the only way to definitively answer the life-on-Mars question," says John Wood, a research scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., and chairman of the panel.

While the likelihood of finding living organisms is extremely small, he continues, it isn't zero.

Engineering challenge

The quarantine facility to house those samples would be like no other ever built. It must be able to isolate Earth from any possible contaminants the samples might contain, while keeping the samples as pristine as possible so earthborne contamination doesn't render them useless for study.

Each of these goals, taken separately, is relatively easy to achieve, he notes.

Biological isolation facilities, for example, are maintained so that the air in the labs is held at lower pressure that the outside air. If the structure is breached, air will flow inward, keeping dangerous microbes in the lab. Clean rooms, on the other hand, try to keep contaminants out, so their air is held at pressures slightly higher than the outside air. Open the wrong door, and air blows out, preventing dust or bacteria from entering the lab.

Mixing both approaches in one laboratory, however, has never been done before, Dr. Wood says.

When to set samples loose

Beyond the lab's mechanics, the panel also suggests setting up a road map for releasing samples to researchers. If some samples are free of any chemical fingerprints of past or present life, they can be shipped out quickly to scientists eager to study them, says John Mustard, an assistant professor in Brown University's department of geological science and a member of the National Academy of Sciences panel. Samples with ambiguous signs of life could be either sterilized before shipping or sent - suitably wrapped - to other "maximum-security" biological labs.

Samples with unambiguous signs of life, however, would require a new level of laboratory to store, handle, and study them.

In addition, a facility would have to be able to determine if a no-life signal for a sample truly means no life, or whether it means life different from anything humans have ever seen, notes Rummel, who is based in Washington.

Skirting the NIMBY issue

To avoid having to confront the not-in-my-backyard syndrome when it comes time to select a site for the lab, Wood and his colleagues suggest that it could be placed near other microbial lockups at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, the University of Texas's medical facility in Galveston, Texas, or the US Army's infectious-disease research facility at Ft. Detrick, Md.

Next week, NASA is holding a final workshop on the issue. Then Rummel says he will begin to draw up specifications for the lab and guidelines for testing, storing, and distributing the samples. He says he expects to have a full plan ready in 2003 or 2004, based on current knowledge.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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