Report: Secure Facility for Mars Samples Needed Earlier

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WASHINGTON Design and construction of a facility to handle potentially dangerous samples brought back from Mars needs to begin earlier than experts previously recommended, according to a new report from the National Research Council’s Space Studies Board.

Like the 1997 report it updates, the Space Studies Board’s “Assessment of Planetary Protection Requirements for Mars Sample Return Missions” recommends that any material brought back from the red planet be presumed hazardous and quarantined in a secure facility of the sort the U.S. Army and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) use to study such exotic pathogens as the deadly Ebola virus.

Studies and observations of Mars over the last 12 years have only reinforced scientific belief that “habitable environments were once widespread,” the report said.

The new report, like the earlier one, urges NASA to treat any returned Mars samples as “potentially hazardous until proven otherwise.”

Where the two reports differ is in their recommended timing for bringing a sample-receiving facility on line to handle the rocks, soils and ices likely to be targeted in a Mars sample return mission. The 1997 report recommended having the facility operational a minimum of two years prior to launch, a phrase the authors of the new report found ambiguous because it could imply launch from Earth or from Mars. Additionally, while so-called biosafety facilities of the sort managed by the CDC are typically considered ready to handle potentially lethal pathogens about two years after completion, certifying a facility to safely and securely handle the deadliest and most exotic biohazards typically takes several additional years, according to the report. As such, the new report’s authors recommend that construction and commissioning of a sample-receiving facility “should be completed and fully operational at least two years prior to the return of samples to Earth.”

Jim Green, director of NASA’s planetary science division, said what that recommendation means in practice will depend on the mission architecture the United States and its partners ultimately choose for Mars sample return. Broadly speaking, NASA and its partners could approach sample return as a single mission, or launch one set of spacecraft to collect samples followed by a second mission to retrieve them and bring them back to Earth.

Either way, Green said in a May 13 interview, NASA takes to heart the report’s recommendation that the facility itself has to be treated as a critical part of the mission and certified ready to go two years before the samples are due to reach Earth.

The report, released May 13, was commissioned in early 2008 by then-NASA associate administrator for science, Alan Stern, a planetary scientist who had advocated launching a robotic Mars sample return mission in the 2018 to 2020 timeframe. Stern’s successor, astrophysicist Ed Weiler, was quick to distance himself from that schedule as well as Stern’s $3 billion to $4 billion cost estimate for the mission.

“What is the real cost of Mars sample return? Does the community want to pay that cost in terms of the missions that could be done in the interim or not done?” Weiler said in an interview shortly after replacing Stern in March 2008.

Weiler also has said Mars sample return is too big an undertaking for NASA to tackle on its own and has called for working hand in hand with the European Space Agency (ESA) on a mission that would launch in 2020 or later. While NASA has made no formal commitment to Mars sample return, it continues to fund mission concept studies “at a low level,” according to Green.

Meanwhile, the kind of close collaboration NASA sees as necessary for a mission as big and expensive as Mars sample return will be put to the test as the U.S. space agency works to finalize a major contribution to ESA’s 2016 ExoMars mission, Green said.

“You have to recognize that that actually is a very new paradigm because typically international cooperative efforts have not been done on a 50-50 basis,” Green said. “We’re really changing our approach here.”

Green said a joint sample return mission is not being given serious consideration for the 2018 Mars launch opportunity, but will be part of the mix as NASA and its European partners begin to look out through 2024.

Green said NASA also expects that the Planetary Science Decadal Survey getting under way this summer to set goals for the next 10 years will address Mars sample return in some fashion.

Green said he was pleased to see the report’s authors addressed the presumed internationalization of a Mars sample return mission and included recommendations about establishing policies for the archiving and distribution of samples.

NASA’s formal, written response to the report will be delivered to the Space Studies Board in June, he said.