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Mars Sample Return: Issues and Recommendations
The key findings and recommendations of the task group are listed below. Although focused on sample-return missions from Mars, the recommendations can be generalized to any mission that could return a sample from an extraterrestrial object with a similar potential for harboring life.
Although current evidence suggests that the surface of Mars is inimical to life as we know it, there remain plausible scenarios for extant microbial life on Mars—for instance in possible hydrothermal oases or in subsurface regions.
The surface environment of Mars, from which early samples are most likely to be returned, is highly oxidizing, is exposed to a high flux of ultraviolet radiation, is devoid of organic matter, and is largely devoid of liquid water. It is unlikely that life of any kind, as we currently understand it, either active or dormant, could survive in such an inhospitable environment. If active volcanism, or near-surface liquid water, is discovered on Mars, or if the subsurface environment is found to be considerably less oxidizing and wetter than the surface, the occurrence of extant life on the planet becomes more plausible.
Contamination of Earth by putative martian microorganisms is unlikely to pose a risk of significant ecological impact or other significant harmful effects. The risk is not zero, however.
In the event that living martian organisms were somehow introduced into Earth's environment, the likelihood that they could survive and grow and produce harmful effects is judged to be low. Any extant martian microorganisms introduced into Earth's biosphere would likely be subject to the same physical and chemical constraints on their metabolic processes as are terrestrial organisms. Thus, extraterrestrial organisms would be unlikely to mediate any geochemical reactions that are not already catalyzed by Earth organisms. They would be unlikely to be able to compete successfully with Earth organisms, which are well adapted to their habitats.
Because pathogenesis requires specific adaptations to overcome the extensive defenses possessed by all Earth organisms, virulent extraterrestrial pathogens are unlikely. Subcellular disease agents, such as viruses and prions, are biologically part of their host organisms, and so an extraterrestrial source is extremely unlikely. Conceivably, putative extraterrestrial organisms could be capable of opportunistic infections or toxicity, as are some terrestrial bacteria, but such a risk can be eliminated by standard laboratory control procedures.
The potential for large-scale effects, either through pathogenesis or ecological disruption, is extremely small. Thus, the risks associated with inadvertent introduction of exogenous microbes into the terrestrial environment are judged to