Pathogens are being monitored and discussed now more than ever in an effort to prevent future plagues. And as space exploration continues to break the mold, the reality that NASA may find living microbes is becoming a real possibility. The unlikely scenario that they would find living microbes is already earth-shattering, but what if the microbes they find cause a pandemic on the planet?
The chances that this would happen are insanely small. Yet scientists aren’t interested in gambling away our only home. How do they plan to keep the planet safe from possible pathogens? High-level biocontainment labs and ultra-sterile rooms. This task can be complicated on Earth, even if it’s more common. But in space, it’s a new level of complexity.
If the Red Planet does harbor any secret microbes that could harm our planet, the samples NASA takes from Mars need to be kept in a lab with negative air pressure. Negative air pressure ensures air will rush into the facility rather than seep out.
But there’s a catch: it’s much more likely that a lifeform from Earth would contaminate a Martian rock. While this doesn’t spell out the same sort of cataclysm the other outcome does, it’s still certainly not ideal. So they’ll need to operate a clean, sterile lab with positive air pressure to push anything that could contaminate the samples out.
It’s a head-scratcher, as there isn’t a precedent for such an HVAC system in the real world. However, NASA is investing in research to build such a lab as quickly as they can. The researchers from NASA Tiger Team RAMA are dedicated to learning how to deal with extraterrestrial containment.
The information needs to come faster: experts suggest that a lab like this could take over a decade to build. And since Mars samples have an estimated arrival time of 2033, the ticking clock couldn’t be louder.
This instance wouldn’t be the first time NASA has dealt with the possibility of extraterrestrial pathogens. After Apollo’s trips to the moon, all astronauts and materials were held under quarantine upon landing in the pacific. Scientists could take their time to determine that the moon wasn’t a threat, and the quarantine procedures were dropped.
While lunar pathogens weren’t of any concern, the Apollo 12 crew did return to Earth with a surprise. They discovered that microbial life could survive the intense trip through space. Earth bacteria returned with the Surveyor III back through the atmosphere, proving that bacteria could survive and even thrive on the moon.
The discovery was reason enough to believe that, no matter how slim the chances, alien microbial life could find its way to our planet. Because of this, NASA has dedicated so much research so far in advance and will continue to treat alien samples like hazardous biological materials until proven otherwise.
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Written for Passport Health by CJ Darnieder. CJ is a freelance writer and editor in Chicago. He is an avid lover of classical music and stand-up comedy and loves to write both in his spare time.