Within the next two decades, NASA is planning to launch a mission to Mars that could return the first pristine samples of Martian atmosphere, rocks and soil. These samples could be used to perform tests that may be impossible with lightweight robotic explorers, such as definitively measuring rock ages and, potentially, finding the first evidence of Martian life. But it is unknown that it might pose hazardous to the terrestrial life.
The new report updates a long-standing recommendation that Mars samples be kept in isolation in a special facility while they are examined for life.
"I think the bottom line here is containment, containment, containment," said Jack Farmer of Arizona State University in Tempe, who chaired the committee of 10 experts behind the report, which was commissioned by NASA.
The committee also writes that "Such a facility would need to have stringent controls to contain agents that might be fatal to humans. It could take 7 to 10 years to build, so its design and construction should be considered at the earliest stages of Mars sample return mission planning,".
According to Cassie Conley, NASA's planetary protection officer, "this report helps update the agency on the issue of contaminating Earth with extraterrestrial samples, or 'back-contamination'.
He also said that, "it would be incorporated in future discussions at both NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), which is also considering a sample return mission".