"Avoiding Andromeda Strain" --NASA Identifies 25 Gaps in Our Knowledge to Guard Earth Against Alien Life & Biological Contamination"
One of the greatest fears of the world's space is a real-life Andromeda Strain, the chilling movie about a US research satellite carrying a deadly extraterrestrial microscopic organism that crashes into a small town in Arizona. A group of top scientists are hurriedly assembled in a bid to identify and contain the lethal stowaway.
In 2015 NASA scientists, led by our current Planetary Protection Officer, Catharine Conley, who has held the position for three years, gathered at a 3-day workshop to discuss 25 gaps they identified in knowledge when it comes to limiting interplanetary contamination by human crews during future space missions.
While extraterrestrial samples might shed light on the formation of the solar system and yield clues about the origins and evolution of life on Earth and beyond, NASA has to prevent alien microbes from ever spreading uncontrolled on Earth as well as avoid bringing Earth microbes to other worlds, which could cause contamination could disrupt the hunt for signs of life in any samples gathered from those sites afterward.
"The benefit of having humans in space is that they're much more flexible than robots, but they could contaminate Mars with Earth life," said Conley.
The NASA researchers identified 25 gaps in knowledge that fell into three major categories: monitoring microbes and human health; investigating how contaminants might travel to, from and on Mars; and technology and strategies for controlling contamination.
"A really interesting development that came to light was all the work done in the biomedical community to investigate the human microbiome and environmental microbiome—what microbes live in people and their environments," Conley told Space.com. "Ten years ago, the technology to analyze these microbiomes was not well-established, but now there are devices on the International Space Station with microbial monitoring capabilities."
When it comes to investigating how contaminants might travel to and on Mars, the gaps include learning how Martian winds might potentially disperse microbes and other contaminants and pose risks to human health.
"Recent findings that are coming back from the robotic rovers we have on Mars are giving us hints that the Martian environment is not understood in detail to the level we would want," Conley said. "For instance, bleach flying in the dust in Mars is potentially a human health hazard."
The earliest Mars missions, part of NASA's Viking program, included meticulous steps to not sully the Martian landscape, she said. “The landers,” Conley explained, “were packaged and put inside a bioshield and baked in an oven to kill all organisms — a 'full-system sterilization,' we call it. … We needed to protect the life-detection instruments and protect the Mars environment in case it turned out to be habitable to Earth life.”
When it comes to technology and strategies for controlling contamination, knowledge gaps include how the duration of the human stay on Mars might impact risk of contamination and what level of escape of microbes into the Martian environment might be acceptable, given how many would likely die out.
"The capabilities we are developing for people for the Asteroid Redirect Mission are good testbeds for ones we can develop for Mars," Conley said.
By closing these 25 knowledge gaps, "we will be able to establish clear quantitative guidelines on planetary protection that will lead to eventual international consensus standards for human missions beyond Earth orbit and particularly in support of a collaborative journey to Mars," Gerhard Kminek, the European Space Agency's planetary protection officer, said in a statement.