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A job for our planetary protection officer

NASA must develop a facility to contain samples from Mars, in case alien life exists.

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John Rummel faces a daunting job. He must build a multi-million-dollar lab no one knows how to design, to isolate organisms no one knows will survive, if they arrive on samples from a planet that no one is certain harbors life.

Isn't this overkill for roughly one pound of Martian rock and dust?

"It's simple prudence," says Dr. Rummel. He is NASA's "planetary protection officer" - a real-life "man in black" minus the Ray-Bans and fancy weaponry - charged with placing a quarantine on possible alien life forms.

The issue is heating up as the space agency prepares for the return of samples from Mars early in the next decade.

In the real world, the lockdown facility Rummel and the agency would oversee must be kept as tight as any lab designed to handle dangerous earthly microbes and as clean as any computer-chip lab. It must also decide when and how to release samples to researchers - making it a kind of Ellis Island for microscopic interplanetary travelers.

In fact, so much research will go into the facility, according to a National Academy of Sciences panel studying the issue, that NASA had best get cracking if it hopes to have the facility ready in time to receive samples, currently slated for return in 2014.

Those samples are vital to one of the most fundamental questions surrounding the red planet: Could it have hosted primitive life forms?

Red-planet puzzle

Returning samples for detailed study is "perhaps the only way to definitively answer the life-on-Mars question," says John Wood, a research scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., and chairman of the panel.

While the likelihood of finding living organisms is extremely small, he continues, it isn't zero.

Engineering challenge

The quarantine facility to house those samples would be like no other ever built. It must be able to isolate Earth from any possible contaminants the samples might contain, while keeping the samples as pristine as possible so earthborne contamination doesn't render them useless for study.

Each of these goals, taken separately, is relatively easy to achieve, he notes.

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