How NASA Plans to Combat Alien Plagues

Monday, 20 November 2017 - 2:39PM
Alien Life
Monday, 20 November 2017 - 2:39PM
How NASA Plans to Combat Alien Plagues
< >
Image credit: YouTube
A germ arriving from space could mean the end of life on Earth. Then again, a bug from Earth could do the same to life on another planet. 

Anyone who has read War of the Worlds and The Andromeda Strain is familiar with the concept that an alien pathogen—a native virus when introduced to extraterrestrial life—would be devastating, that the simplest germ would ravage a species before understanding its effect.

Science-fiction writers and scientists alike have proposed this theory. NASA's Mars 2020 project to drill into the Martian surface is keeping this all in mind. 

With the potential for making a contact with some biological form of alien life a distinct possibility, NASA's playing by NASA Office of Planetary Protection's rules, designating the trip a "Category V Restricted Earth Return mission" to ensure our astronauts are safe, Mars stays relatively undisturbed, and most importantly, that no alien plague makes it back to Earth. 

That means, among other restrictions, that its "candidate landing sites" cannot include "locations with ice or hydrated minerals," because the exploring rover's radiothermal generator (source of power) could cause melting and the release of particles. 
Any samples that are going to be sent to Earth must be "enclosed in a physical biobarrier…and subjected to a validated bioburden reduction process [that] achieves at least 4-orders of magnitude of microbial reduction," which would reduce the amount of any germs present 10,000 times—in other words, a single Martian germ would have about .0001 percent chance of squeaking through.

This might sound like a necessity of the new space age, but NASA's Office of Planetary Protection created regulations almost 60 years ago with the express purpose to "promote the responsible exploration of the solar system by implementing and developing efforts that protect the science, explored environments, and Earth." 

Among its goals is to avoid the "biological contamination of explored environments" and to make sure we don't bring something home to our biosphere that could pack a fatal wallop.

The office does this by covering mission development that includes "assistance in the construction of sterile (or low biological burden) spacecraft, the development of flight plans that protect planetary bodies of interest, the development of plans to protect the Earth from returned extraterrestrial samples, and the formulation and application of space policy as it applies to planetary protection."

In other words, you can't simply blast off into space—there are regulations to observe.

One directive concerns "Biological Contamination Control for Outbound and Inbound Planetary Spacecraft," which—as per the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958—states that:

                 "The conduct of scientific investigations of possible extraterrestrial life forms, precursors, and remnants must not be jeopardized. In addition,
                   the Earth must be protected from the potential hazard posed by extraterrestrial matter carried by a spacecraft returning from another planet
                   or other extraterrestrial sources. Therefore, for certain space-mission/target-planet combinations, controls on organic and biological contamination
                   carried by spacecraft shall be imposed in accordance with directives implementing this policy."

Robots have rules too, as decreed by the "Planetary Protection Provisions for Robotic Extraterrestrial Missions."

This relates to "the control of terrestrial microbial contamination associated with robotic space vehicles intended to land, orbit, flyby, or otherwise encounter extraterrestrial solar system bodies, and…the control of contamination of the Earth and the Moon by extraterrestrial material collected and returned by robotic missions."

As AI grows increasingly more complex and becomes integrated into NASA's overall space exploration missions, we can only imagine plans are being formulated in some back room right now to ensure our future astronauts are just as safe from any other unprecedented workplace accidents

Alien Life
How NASA Plans to Combat Alien Plagues