As the Perseverance rover cruises the Red Planet studying its geology and taking selfies with the Ingenuity helicopter, researchers on Earth are eagerly awaiting the first samples of Martian soil to be delivered to Earth in the coming years.
Delivering rocks from the Martian surface to Earth does not seem very exciting to the small team of scientists from the International Committee against the Return of Samples from Mars (ICAMSR), who warn of the incredible risks that these life-carrying samples could pose to our home planet, including the huge "Martian plague ".
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the European Space Agency (ESA) are collaborating on a mission to retrieve samples from Mars, trying to bring valuable rocks and soil to Earth for detailed exploration.
They plan to launch a rover in 2026 to pick up samples collected by the Perseverance rover, which landed on the Red Planet in February this year. Thus, Martian soils, including some of the microorganisms that could potentially inhabit them, could end up on our planet in the next decade.
According to NASA, "the return of pristine samples of Mars to Earth has been the goal of many generations of planetary scientists."
Dr. Gilbert Levin is not particularly enthusiastic about this. An engineer who investigated NASA's Viking program, which ran from 1975 to 1983, said there is a "real chance" that the Red Planet is inhabited by life forms that will infiltrate Earth, causing another devastating pandemic, from which we have no protection.
I fear that even if we manage to make a safe container for returning samples from Mars and deliver it to Earth, there is a high probability that part of the sample will escape from the "safe" laboratory, where the container will be opened, "says Levin.
Scientists at ICAMSR are expressing similar caution, citing legendary astronomer Carl Sagan, who warned of the implications of shipping samples in his 1973 book:
"Precisely because Mars is an environment of great potential biological interest, it is quite possible that there are pathogens on Mars, organisms that, if transferred to the terrestrial environment, can cause enormous biological damage … the Martian plague."
ICAMSR Director Barry DiGregorio believes that one of the alternatives may be to transport the collected samples to the Moon, where any microorganisms can be identified and placed in isolation on the so-called Lunar Gateway space station. There, samples can be examined to make sure that no infections will get to earthlings who are not immune to the Martian plague.
“This is the only way to guarantee 100% protection of the Earth's biosphere,” says DiGregorio.
ESA agrees that there is no need to immediately ship samples to terrestrial laboratories:
"Leaving orbital samples in a stable orbit on Mars is one of several alternative strategies that are possible after launching samples from the Martian surface," says one of the agency's most recent reports.
But in the end, only laboratories on Earth have the sophisticated equipment to carry out all the necessary tests that would allow drawing conclusions about the geology and history of Mars, which is primarily the goal of the Mars 2020 mission.
"We expect samples of Mars to provide new insights for decades to come as we study them with the most advanced laboratory instruments that we would not be able to bring to Mars right now," concludes NASA's planetary science director Laurie Glaze.