National Research Council warns failure to prepare for quarantine work will endanger 2011 sample return mission

The US National Research Council (NRC) is warning that work on a Mars sample quarantine laboratory must begin soon if NASA is to be ready for the first Mars sample-return mission scheduled for 2011.

A launch in 2011 would result in samples returning to Earth in 2014. Although the odds are extremely low that the samples will contain hazardous organisms, it would be prudent to ensure that all Martian material is rigorously quarantined, says the NRC. It will also be vital that Mars samples are isolated from terrestrial organisms, says the council, which adds that it would take seven or more years to design, build and test the laboratory.

Experimentation is needed to identify effective sterilisation techniques that have minimal impact on the physical and chemical properties of the samples, the NRC says.

The laboratory should be affiliated with and located close to an existing containment facility, such as those operated by the Centres of Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, the US Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases in Fort Derrick, Maryland, or a planned laboratory in Galvaston, Texas.

Meanwhile, NASA administrator Dan Goldin is stopping small-scale, secondary and conceptual manned Mars exploration studies. He believes that the International Space Station (ISS), increased robotic exploration and the Space Launch Initiative (SLI) will be enough to allow a human landing on Mars by 2020.

Robotic, biological and radiation work on the ISS and unmanned robotic missions, such as the Mars sample return mission, will be important precursors to the development of the technology required for human Mars exploration, while the SLI is expected to reduce launch costs.

The move comes after funds have been diverted from small Mars research projects to compensate for overspends on the ISS. Goldin had previously said that "unbelievable health problems" will have to be surmounted before humans can land on Mars. Much of the medical research to prepare for the two-year plus Mars round trip would be done on the ISS.

Meanwhile, the Russian Academy of Sciences has discussed with NASA the possibility of a neutron spectrometer to fly on a Mars Scout rover mission in 2007, to search for traces of water on the red planet. The instrument will determine the amount of humidity in the soil by means of neutron particle reflection, enabling the Scout to locate potential sites for drilling into the soil.

Source: Flight International