Bias disclaimer: I think that returning samples from Mars to Earth at a point in time where we also suspect there is a chance that there is microbial life on Mars is ill-advised and arrogant. We are already scared of ancient viruses we don't know about trapped frozen in permafrost here on Earth being released as the climate warms. Even if a microbe doesn't infect humans, all it has to be able to do is to infect something e.g. algae in the ocean, wheat, rice or corn, honey bees, gut bacteria, and the planet or at least humanity is at severe risk. Random examples of news items are shown below.

update: See NASA Establishes Board to Initially Review Mars Sample Return Plans:

"NASA stands up these independent boards to help the agency learn from past experiences and uncover subtle issues in space systems that may not have yet received sufficient attention," said David Thompson, retired president of Orbital ATK, who will chair the new board. "This review will give us the chance to focus on overall mission success and to consider potential improvements that can be made early in the program to help ensure that outcome."

Now that's what I'm talkin' about!! Image of the Genesis crash site below illustrates one such "subtle issue." ;-)


Typing "back contamination" in the search box on the main page https://sma.nasa.gov/ returns results that include:

Safeguarding Earth from back contamination is the highest planetary protection priority

from Planetary Protection Knowledge Gaps for Human Extraterrestrial Missions Workshop Report NASA Ames, March 24-26 2015

Safeguarding the Earth from potential back contamination is the highest planetary protection priority in Mars exploration.

From 2nd COSPAR WORKSHOP on: Refining Planetary Protection Requirements for Human Missions May 15-16, 2018 and COSPAR WORK MEETING on Developing Payload Requirements for Addressing PP Gaps on Natural Transport of Contaminants on Mars May 17-18, 20 18 BOX 1: COSPAR Planetary Protection Principles and Implementation Guidelines for Human Missions to Mars

Question: Considering the (small) potential for there to be microbes in Martian samples robotically returned to Earth, what precautions are planned to prevent an accident or anomaly or something else unlikely but not impossible from releasing them into the environment? Will there be hazmat crews ready to go if another Genesis-like land crash happens for example? What if it crashes into water?

Please don't post answers that this is not likely to happen; this is a question about the extent of precautions.

Sometimes sample return missions go bad and need to be recovered in the desert after they break open.

The capsule broke open on impact, and part of the inner sample capsule was also breached. The damage was less severe than might have been expected given its velocity; it was to some extent cushioned by falling into fairly soft ground.

Genesis crash site scenery

above: Genesis crash site scenery below: What kind of rocket will ESA(?) launch from Mars? Who will build it?

The tubes will be put in a rocket and fired high above Mars

  • $\begingroup$ Speaking of biases -- how could anything caused by invasive life from Mars possibly be worse than what we have right now? $\endgroup$ – Carl Witthoft Jun 26 '20 at 13:25
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    $\begingroup$ Don't add water. imgur.com/vIKrk4w $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble Jun 27 '20 at 17:51
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    $\begingroup$ NASA was very careful about such matters during the Apollo program with the Apollo 11 & 12 astronauts being quarantined in case there were pathogens on the Moon. I'm not aware of any precautions the Russian took when they obtained lunar samples from the Luna 16 & 20 missions. Likewise for the Japanese asteroid sampling probe Hyabusa that resulted in a sample from Itokawa that landed near Woomera, Australia in 2010. $\endgroup$ – Fred Jul 2 '20 at 9:29
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    $\begingroup$ Apparently a sample from Hayabusa 2 will be landing at Woomera in December 2020 $\endgroup$ – Fred Jul 2 '20 at 9:35

Humanity hasn't yet reached a consensus.

Return samples obtained from a Category V body must be curated at facilities rated Biosafety level-4 (BSL-4). Because the existing BSL-4 facilities ... do not have the complex requirements to ensure the preservation and protection of Earth and the sample simultaneously, there are currently at least two proposals to build a BSL-4 facility dedicated to curation of restricted (potentially biohazard) extraterrestrial materials.
-- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extraterrestrial_sample_curation

More details: https://www.space.com/7625-protect-mars-samples-earth.html

See also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Outer_Space_Treaty.

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    $\begingroup$ Seems to me like a high earth orbit lab might be a good idea. $\endgroup$ – ikrase Jun 26 '20 at 9:42
  • $\begingroup$ But "curation" is moot if the spacecraft crashes and breaks open. "...what precautions are planned to prevent an accident or anomaly or something else unlikely but not impossible from releasing them into the environment?" This isn't really an answer yet; does any of the material in your links actually address my question? If so, can you quote a bit of it to demonstrate relevance? $\endgroup$ – uhoh Jun 26 '20 at 11:45
  • $\begingroup$ @ikrase it’s too expensive in delta v ... $\endgroup$ – Antzi Jun 26 '20 at 13:05
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    $\begingroup$ @carlwitthoft I understood that the chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one. But it's ok, they would be slain, after all man's devices had failed, by the humblest things upon the Earth: Bacteria. So, great news! Phew. :-) $\endgroup$ – SusanW Jun 27 '20 at 1:05
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    $\begingroup$ @BarrowWight I think the reason it's being brought to Earth for study is that there is not sufficient equipment on Mars to study it, and I'm pretty sure for this mission there will not be any tests for life or for biological safety on Mars by the time it's sent back. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Aug 16 '20 at 6:35

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