Mars Sample Return: When a Martian Souvenir Threatens Earth

© NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS (detail)

Perseverance Drills Mars | The Mars rover is doing some digging on the red planet: Perseverance has already collected six rock samples. During its mission, the rover will collect multiple samples and deposit them on the planet’s surface. The sample containers would then be collected by another rover and returned to Earth as part of the Mars Sample Return program.

“Are you crazy? Not only no, but damn no,” read one comment. “No nation should endanger the entire planet,” added another. And a third said public opposition would increase as NASA’s intentions become more widely known. Many of those interviewed suggested that the samples should first be received and analyzed outside Earth. This is a wise idea, but it could turn into a logistical and expensive nightmare.

Against all this caution, prominent astrobiologist Steven Benner takes an open view. He says, “I don’t see the need for a long discussion about how we should deal with samples from Mars when they reach our planet.” That’s partly because Earth is constantly being hit by meteorites that originally came from Mars. According to Steven Benner, current estimates assume that about 500 kilograms of Martian rocks land on Earth each year. As if to prove it, there is a piece of Martian rock weighing five grams on his desk.

“In the more than 3.5 billion years since life originated on Earth, trillions of other rocks have undergone similar journeys,” says Benner. “If Martian microbes exist and can wreak havoc on Earth’s biosphere, it has already happened. Then a few extra pounds won’t make any difference.”

Benner is a member of the many expert panels that NASA consulted to arrive at its “extremely low” risk assessment for the venture. The astrobiologist thinks that NASA is now trapped in a PR trap of its own making: it has practically devoted itself to endless debate about the supposed complexities of what should be simple, healthy, scientific. NASA now knows “how to look for life on Mars, where to look for life on Mars and why the probability of finding life on Mars is high,” says Steven Benner. “But committees within NASA want consensus and agreement on basic chemistry, biology and planetary science. However, it should be the basis for the search for life on Mars. In this way, science is pushed aside in favor of discussions about problems that don’t really exist. This would unnecessarily increase costs. This would delay the start of the missions.

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