Viruses From Outer Space: How Will Scientists Protect the Planet From Extraterrestrial Diseases?

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With the Curiosity rover due to touch down on Mars within weeks, eyes will be focused on the red planet—including those of NASA scientist Catharine Conley.

Conley is NASA’s Planetary Protection Officer, and her job is to ensure that astronauts and robots that leave our planet don’t bring back nasty extra-terrestrial bugs that could potentially wipe out life on Earth. Since man started blasting rockets into space, the problem of viruses and potentially hazardous forms of life hasn’t been relegated to Earth.

“We’re not going to be sending humans tomorrow,” she says, “but technology development takes a long time and we have to think about doing this now. I’m always monitoring technologies that are coming up and asking: can we adapt this technology to be used in spaceflight?”

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Hers is a hefty task. NASA’s Office of Planetary Protection has been looking out for Earth’s safety since 1967, when the United Nations instituted the Outer Space Treaty. The treaty, which sets regulations for all countries participating in space programs, outlines rules for disinfection and quarantine of objects that enter space and subsequently return to Earth.

Now maintained and updated by the non-governmental group the International Council for Science, the treaty not only sets out regulations for protecting Earth but also for protecting other planets from contamination by humans.

How those regulations are instituted, and how seriously the NOPP goes about disinfecting crafts before and after they leave Earth, is dependent on several factors. “We’re willing to accept a certain amount of risk. It’s impossible to get things perfectly clean,” Conley says.

But in the last ten years the thinking on planetary protection has changed since the decision to send humans to Mars has become more and more realistic, despite treats of hefty cutbacks in NASA’s Mars program. Mars is the first place humans will go that has a true possibility of harboring life. Because of that, the astronauts who go are in danger of contaminating the red planet, themselves, and Earth upon their return.

We have numerical requirements on how many small organisms are allowed to be on a spacecraft when it launches from Earth,” she says. “Humans would be required to land not near water, and they’d have to use clean robots if they want to explore the water.”

Currently, there’s no specific law that affects a return to Earth from another planet. Lawyers for NASA and the UN are considering how Maritime Law might be applied, for example, in determining how a sick astronaut would return home.

The NOPP has been studying how to safely bring samples back to Earth in contained ways so that organisms that might be present don’t escape. By studying pathogens here on Earth, such as Ebola, scientists have an idea of what it would take to protect humans from extraterrestrial organisms. In fact, says Conley, the regulations put into place by the NOPP would require containment facilities to be even more secure than our current BioSafety Level 4 research labs, the highest level of protection currently in existence.

The study of extreme environments and organisms on Earth is the only way we can anticipate what types of dangers humans might face from extraterrestrial microbes. Conley has a small budget to help fund research in these areas.

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Most recently, the NOPP office has given funds to a study by Andrew C. Schuerger at the University of Florida lab at Kennedy Space Center. Schuerger has been attempting to grow organisms inside a Mars simulation chamber to see what kind of life might be able to survive in the 0 degree Celsius environment. What he found was that Earth organisms are very adaptable. “Now that he understands how to grow them he’s finding more,” says Conley.

Going forward, NASA hopes to apply what it’s learning about life on Earth to building containment vessels and creating a plan for bringing samples home from Mars. This includes developing science of life detection methods for samples, setting a requirement for the number of particles that can be associated with a spacecraft before it returns to Earth, and sending samples into orbit around Mars for a period of time before they are allowed onto the home-bound craft.

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Even those not connected with the space program see value in what Conley and her cohorts are doing.

“I do think it’s important to have procedures in place to ensure that, if we return from Mars, we don’t inadvertently bring microbes,” says Vincent Racaniello, professor of microbiology and immunology at Columbia University. “We don’t know how such microbes would behave on Earth; it’s possible they would die out during space travel, but they could survive and invade ecosystems here and cause havoc.”

“You can’t guarantee that the humans won’t be exposed,” Conley says. You have to assume that somebody’s going to get exposed and you have to have policies in place so that whatever happens you can respond.”

And that means understanding that just because astronauts might be willing to give up their lives in the name of science, humanity itself may not.

Do you think interplanetary diseases may one day threaten life on Earth? Let us know in the comments.

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Erin Biba is a freelance writer and a correspondent for WIRED magazine. Based in San Francisco, she covers science and its intersection with technology and popular culture. Follow her on twitter @erinbiba

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