ICAMSR - RAISING PUBLIC AWARENESS ABOUT PLANETARY PROTECTION SINCE 2000
In an exclusive Op Ed written for ICAMSR titled "WILL THE MSR BE INFECTED BY THE COVID-19?"
ICAMSR Science Advisor Dr. Gilbert V. Levin shares his unique perspective on NASA's current plans to return Martian rock and
soil samples directly to the Earth. Levin, now in his 90's, is the only surviving Principal Investigator of the
1976 NASA Viking Lander biology team. He has maintained for the last 44 years that his Viking biology detection
instrument (officially known as the Labeled Release experiment) found active microbial metabolism in the soil of
Mars. Levin, also an original member of NASA'S Planetary Quarantine Advisory Panel, has always thought bringing
samples of Mars directly to Earth could put the Earth's biosphere in danger from possible pathogens.
Moon: A 100% isolation barrier for Earth during exobiological examination of solar system
sample return missions.
Barry E. DiGregorio, Buckingham Centre for Astrobiology
In the near future, space faring nations including NASA plan to bring back to
laboratories on Earth samples of soil and rocks from Mars that could contain
possible pathogenic viruses and/or bacteria. Read the NASA Report
and The Quarantine and Certification of Martian Samples
In light of the loss due to human error of many of the spacecraft sent to Mars
over the course of the space age, the International Committee Against Mars
Sample Return (ICAMSR) urges the scientific and environmental communities to
consider avoiding the return of Martian samples directly to Earth as problems
with electronic circuitry malfunctions are common as well as accidental impacts.
The study of Martian soil and rocks for signs of life can be accomplished with
in-situ life detection instruments on Mars, something NASA has not done since
the twin Viking mission in 1976. The question must be asked: Do the benefits of
studying Martian samples in laboratories on Earth outweigh the risk of
contaminating our world? We only have one Earth. Two of the NASA Viking biology
team astrobiologists, Gilbert V. Levin and Patricia Ann Straat have published
numerous papers stating they believe that their biology instrument called the
Labeled Release instrument discovered living microorganisms in Martian soil.
This instrument put on both Viking Mars landers tested Martian soil nine
times under a variety of conditions at two different landing sites.
Read The dilemma of Mars sample return.
In his 1973 book "Carl Sagan's cosmic connection: an extraterrestrial
perspective", Sagan says on page 114:
"Precisely because Mars is an environment of great potential biological
interest, it is possible that on Mars there are pathogens, organisms which, if
transported to the terrestrial environment, might do enormous biological damage
- a Martian plague, the twist in the plot of H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds, but
in reverse. This is an extremely grave point. On the one hand, we can argue that
Martian organisms cannot cause any serious problems to terrestrial organisms,
because there has been no biological contact for 4.5 billion years between
Martian and terrestrial organisms. On the other hand, we can argue equally well
that terrestrial organisms have evolved no defenses against potential Martian
pathogens, precisely because there has been no such contact for 4.5 billion
years. The chance of such an infection may be very small, but the hazards, if it
occurs, are certainly very high."
Carl Sagan a founding member of The Planetary Society was a strong supporter of
planetary protection early on in the space program and wrote about contaminating
Mars and the Moon with Earth microbes often. Reporting on the possibility of
some hardy hitchhiking Earth microbes reproducing on Mars, Sagan along with
colleagues Joshua Lederberg and Elliott Levinthal published a 1968 paper
entitled "Contamination of Mars" in the journal Science(v.159, pages 1191-
1196a)where they wrote, "One terrestrial microorganism reproducing as slowly as
once a month on Mars, without other ecological limitations, in less than a
decade would result in a microbial population of the Martian soil comparable to
the Earth." This single sentence illustrates how important it is not only to
sterilize spacecraft going to Mars, but also to avoid bringing samples from Mars
back to Earth for study.
Another world-renowned scientist who opposed the idea of returning Martian soil
and rock samples to Earth was the late Carl Woese, the Nobel Prize-nominated
biophysicist who while at the University of Illinois discovered the third domain
of life - the Archaea. Woese told ICAMSR in 2001:
"When the entire biosphere hangs in the balance, it is adventuristic to the
extreme to bring Martian life here. Sure, there is a chance it would do no harm;
but that is not the point. Unless you can rule out the chance that it might do
harm, you should not embark on such a course."
Gilbert V. Levin who claims that his Viking Labeled Release experiment
discovered microbial life on Mars in 1976 says:
"I fear that, even if a safe Mars Sample Return container could be made and
brought to Earth, there is a good probability that some of the sample would
escape from the 'secure' lab where the container would be opened". Levin also
questions the scientific rationale of returning samples form Mars, "How could
we get a living sample to survive the 9 or 10-month journey from Mars without
knowing what any Martian microorganisms present in the sample need in the way
of substrates, water, temperature, atmosphere, environmental cycling, etc.?
Would we ever know whether it started out alive or dead?"