How NASA plans to prevent a Martian plague

It sounds a bit like science fiction, but the danger of surprise pathogens – even if it’s very remote – should be obvious enough to all of us by now.

What if the Mars samples we want to bring back contain more than just information about our neighbor?

What if they contained not only signs of ancient life, but actually living microbes?

What if they caused a pandemic?

To deal with this highly unlikely but still possible scenario, NASA will need to create a laboratory like no other currently on Earth, combining the ability of high-level biocontainment laboratories to keep everything inand the ability of ultra-sterile cleanrooms to keep everything on Earth out.

What if the Mars samples we bring back bring something back with them?

Contamination — and containment: Even getting the air inside such a facility is going to be… complex.

To prevent samples from Mars from potentially unleashing a plague from the Red Planet on Earth, the lab should have negative air pressure – so any leaks cause a rush of air in installation, preventing anything in it from leaking.

But to prevent terrestrial life forms from contaminating our precious Martian rocks – a much more likely, albeit less risky scenario – a clean and sterile laboratory should also have a positive atmospheric pressure, pushing germs, dust, dander, etc. out of the lab, preventing anything inside from getting dirty.

Needless to say, NASA doesn’t have an actual grand model for the world’s most paradoxical HVAC system.

But a team of researchers dubbed NASA Tiger Team RAMA has traveled the world to understand the challenges behind alien containment, reports Sarah Scoles for The New York Times.

And it might not be a minute too soon, because such a lab could take a decade to build, and samples from Mars are expected to land by 2033.

“This will be the first mission to return samples from another planet,” Andrea Harrington, NASA’s Mars Samples Curator (what a title!), told Scoles, and even a possibility of remote danger deserves to be discussed. be taken seriously.

“Because it’s not a zero percent chance, we’re doing our due diligence to make sure there’s no possibility of contamination,” Harrington said.

While the odds of bringing a Martian microbe to Earth are slim, they’re not zero – and NASA scientists are taking the threat seriously.

Pandora’s locks: It’s an impressive technological achievement, our ability to contain incredibly deadly pathogens like Ebola, Marburg, and even civilization-killing smallpox, which apparently exists only in secure storage at the CDC and in Siberia’s VECTOR lab.

All laboratories have some measure of biosecurity, intended to keep hazardous materials as safe as possible. There are four levels of laboratory security, which are qualified to handle different levels of pathogens. They are divided according to their biosafety level (BSL).

BSL-1 labs have marginal security measures, with basic security procedures and no truly special equipment or unique design requirements; think of your high school biology lab. These labs are good for studying things like non-pathogens E.coli.

BSL-2 the labs are the first step. The little monsters studied here box make you sick if you are accidentally exposed to it. BSL-2 labs need hand and eye wash stations, self-locking doors, and the ability to decontaminate lab waste. Some level two pathogens include influenza, measles, rabies, and the bacteria that causes plague. Although these last two overlap the lines, sometimes requiring the upper level.

BSL-3 labs can handle stuff that can kill you and spread through the air. Researchers at these labs carry out work in what are called “biosafety cabinets,” which resemble the ones Homer Simpson worked in during The simpsons’ opening generics and are much like mini high-security labs themselves. They need two sets of self-closing doors, sealed windows and walls, and a ventilation system with filters, with all that air coming in. Monkeypox and yellow fever virus are BSL-3 pathogens.

BSL-4 labs handle the most dangerous pathogens on Earth — or, potentially, Mars. These maximum security microbial prisons have all of the above security features and are installed in special isolated areas of existing buildings or are freestanding. Some BSL-4 labs are designed for use with full air supplied suits – when you imagine a dangerous virus being handled in these scary looking dangerous suits, you imagine a BSL-4 lab.

Handling Mars Samples Safely: Because we would be completely unknown to any potential pathogens from the Red Planet, Tiger Team RAMA believes BSL-4 precautions are necessary.

“There are significant unknowns when it comes to biological potential,” John Rummel, a former NASA planetary protection officer (another great title!) told NYT’s Scoles. “A place like Mars is a planet. We don’t know how it works.

A Mars sampling lab would need to keep Martian elements in and Earth elements out: a unique challenge.

To gather information on the BSL-4 labs, Tiger Team RAMA visited some of the most secure facilities in the world, including CDC Building 18 and the Fort Detrick facilities of the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID ).

That’s only half the equation, though. To figure out how to prevent Earth from contaminating the Mars samples, the team visited ultra-clean space labs in Japan and Europe, Scoles reported.

One of the main challenges they highlighted was the airflow issue; you have a lab that needs to be able to do two opposite things. A Mars BSL-4 sampling lab would be the only one trying to be both biosafe and ultra-clean on this scale – no one has ever needed a lab to do that before.

“We’re not surprised it doesn’t exist,” Harrington told Scoles.

Back to Apollo: Although NASA hasn’t built a Martian rock containment facility before, this isn’t the agency’s first attempt to protect us from potential extraterrestrial pathogens.

When the Apollo astronauts returned to Earth, they immediately donned “biological isolation garments” and were then escorted to a mobile quarantine facility aboard the USS Hornetswhich tore them from the Pacific.

Eventually, they and their lunar material would remain at the Lunar Receiving Laboratory in Houston, which operated as a quarantine facility. After a few Apollo missions, scientists felt safe enough to declare the moon no threat, and astronaut quarantine procedures were abandoned by Apollo 14.

A Mars sample containment lab would be the only one trying to be both biosecure and ultra-clean on this scale – no one has ever needed a lab to do that before.

But even if lunar pathogens turned out to be a non-issue, the possibility of microbial life surviving the harsh conditions of space has been proven. When the crew of Apollo 12 brought back the Surveyor III spacecraft returning from the moon, terrestrial bacteria were found to be alive and well in its camera housing.

It’s a reminder that risk, however remote, is possible – and why Tiger Team RAMA started thinking about how to contain it a decade in advance.

“We need to treat these samples as if they contain biohazardous material,” Nick Benardini, NASA planetary protection officer, told Scoles.

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