How does NASA plan to prevent a Mars epidemic?

It sounds like science fiction, but the danger of sudden pathogens – even if they are very remote – should be obvious enough for all of us by now.

What if the Martian samples we want to return contain more than just information about our neighbor?

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

What if they cause a pandemic?

To address this highly unlikely but still possible scenario, NASA will need to create a laboratory different from any currently on Earth, combining the capacity of high-level biocontainment laboratories to preserve everything. inThe ability of ultra-clean rooms to keep everything on the floor Outside.

What if we brought the Martian samples with them?

Pollution – and containment: Even getting air inside such a facility would be… complicated.

To prevent Martian samples from unleashing the plague of the Red Planet on Earth, the laboratory must have Negation Air pressure – so any leakage causes a rush of air inside facility, which prevents the leakage of what is inside.

But To prevent life forms on Earth from contaminating precious Martian rocks — a more likely, if less dangerous scenario — a clean, sterile laboratory would also need to positive compress the air, pushing out any microbes, dust, danders, etc. Outside in the lab, which keeps everything inside from getting dirty.

Suffice it to say, NASA doesn’t have a really great model of the world’s most paradoxical HVAC system.

But a team of researchers dubbed the NASA Tiger Team RAMA has traveled the world to understand the challenges behind containing aliens, Sarah Scholes reports for the New York Times.

And maybe it’s not even a minute later, given that such a lab could take a decade or so to build, and hopefully Mars samples will arrive by 2033.

“This will be the first sample return mission from another planet,” Andrea Harrington, NASA Mars sample curator (what a title!) told Scholes, and even the remote chance of danger deserves to 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 chances of bringing a Martian microbe back to Earth are slim, they aren’t zero — and NASA scientists are taking this threat seriously.

Pandora locks: It’s an impressive technical feat, and our ability to contain incredibly deadly pathogens like Ebola, Marburg and even the deadly smallpox for civilization, which ostensibly only exists in safe storage at the CDC and at the VECTOR laboratory in Siberia.

All laboratories have some measure of biosecurity for them, aiming to keep hazardous materials as safe as possible. There are four safety levels for laboratories qualified to handle different levels of pathogens. They are broken down by Biosecurity Level (BSL).

BSL-1 Labs have marginal security measures, with basic safety measures and no special equipment or unique design requirements; I think your high school biology lab. These labs are suitable for studying things like non-pathogenic substances coli bacteria.

BSL-2 Labs are the first step. I studied little monsters here Can It makes you sick if you accidentally get into it. BSL-2 labs need hand and eye washing stations, automatically lock doors, and the ability to decontaminate lab waste. Some second-level pathogens include influenza, measles, rabies, and the bacteria that cause plague. Although the latter two overlap the lines, sometimes it requires the next level up.

BSL-3 Labs can handle things that can kill you and scatter through the air. Researchers in these labs do their work in so-called “biosafety tanks,” which are similar to what Homer Simpson does while The Simpsons’ Open credits are kind of like high-security little labs themselves. They need two sets of self-closing doors, sealed windows and walls, and a ventilation system with filters, with all that air flowing. The monkey virus and yellow fever virus are BSL-3 pathogens.

BSL-4 The labs deal with the most dangerous pathogens on Earth – or possibly Mars. These maximum security microbial prisons have all the above safety features, and are hidden in special isolated areas of existing buildings or stand alone. Some BSL-4 labs are designed to be used with full-body, air-tight suits – when you picture a dangerous virus being handled in frightening hazmat suits, you picture a BSL-4 lab.

Handling Martian Samples Safely: Since we will not be fully aware of any potential pathogen coming from the Red Planet, Tiger Team RAMA believes that BSL-4 precautions are required.

“There are a lot of unknowns about the biological potential,” John Rommel, a former planetary protection officer at NASA (another great title!) told the New York Times-Scholes. “A place like Mars is a planet. We don’t know how it works.”

The Mars Sample Laboratory will need to keep Martian stuff inside, and get Earth stuff out: a unique challenge.

To gather information about the BSL-4 laboratories, Tiger Team RAMA visited some of the most security facilities on Earth, including the CDC Building 18 and the Fort Detrick facilities of the US Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID).

This is only half of the equation. To find out how to prevent Earth from contaminating Martian samples, the team visited ultrapure space labs in Japan and Europe, Scholes reported.

One of the main challenges they outlined was the problem of airflow. You have a lab that needs to be able to do two opposite things. The BSL-4 Mars sample lab will be the only one trying to be biologically safe and extremely clean at this scale – no one has needed a lab to do this before.

“We’re not surprised that this doesn’t exist,” Harrington told Scholes.

Back to Apollo: Although NASA has never built a facility to contain Martian rocks before, it’s not the agency’s first tour to protect us from potential alien pathogens.

When the Apollo astronauts returned to Earth, they immediately put on “biological isolation clothing” and were escorted to a mobile quarantine facility aboard USS Hornetwho pulled them out of the Pacific Ocean.

Eventually, they and their lunar material would remain at Houston’s Lunar Reception Laboratory, which served as a quarantine facility. After a few Apollo missions, scientists felt safe enough in declaring that the Moon was not a threat, and Apollo 14 dropped the astronaut’s quarantine measures.

The Martian sample containment lab will be the only one trying to be biologically safe and extremely clean at this scale – no one has needed a lab to do this before.

But even though lunar pathogens have proven not to be a problem, Possibility of microbial life that lives in the harsh conditions of space. When the Apollo 12 crew brought in a missile third surveyor A spacecraft returning from the Moon, Earth’s bacteria have been found alive and well in its camera shell.

It’s a reminder that danger, even remote, is possible – and why Tiger Team RAMA began thinking about how to contain it a decade ago.

“We have to treat these samples as if they contain dangerous biological materials,” Nick Benardini, NASA’s planetary protection officer, told Scholes.

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