Report Recommendations Could Save Mars Data (245)

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — A new study by the National Research Council warns NASA that rocks collected from Mars might contaminate Earth with harmful microbes.

 However, recommendations from the study also might help save valuable scientific data about Mars, a University of Tennessee planetary geologist said Friday.

 Dr. Hap McSween said the study does not recommend sterilization, which would destroy evidence of past life and other information about Mars, as the only option to prevent contamination.

 “Many scientists were afraid the report’s recommendations to NASA were going to be more radical and recommend that the rocks be completely sterilized in space,” McSween said. “That would kill any life forms if they did exist, and erase any organic matter or evidence of former life.

“It would really limit what we could learn from the samples. All the volatiles, water and organic matter would be erased out of the rocks.”

 The National Aeronautics and Space Administration asked the council for guidance about protecting Earth from Martian microbes.

The study judged “the likelihood that Martian microorganisms could survive, grow and produce harmful effects” to be low. It recommends that samples be physically and biologically isolated “and treated as though hazardous until proven otherwise.”

 Fears of an extraterrestrial microbe threatening life on Earth were raised in “The Andromeda Strain,” a best-selling novel by Michael Crichton.

 “There is some hysteria about contamination from outer space, but this is a very reasoned, carefully thought out report, and one that scientists can live with,” McSween said.

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 Contact: Dr. Hap McSween (423-974-2366)