While attention on Earth is focused on containing the coronavirus pandemic, a NASA researcher and ex-collaborator has expressed concern about the possible arrival of extraterrestrial viruses stemming from the growing interest in space exploration.
The more we explore space, the further we venture out into the cosmos. Certain bodies in our solar system are visited by robotic missions that are never meant to return to Earth, while others have a different goal.
New Horizons, for example, set out to explore the most distant reaches of our solar system and did so admirably when it sailed past Pluto back in 2015, snapping a plethora of never-before-seen-images of the dwarf planet.
Other missions like the JAXAs Hayabusa2 mission are tasked with exploring an asteroid in the solar system, landing on them, and recovering soil samples for the ancient cosmic bodies to bring them back to Earth for further studies. NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission is asked nearly the same goal as it studies Asteroid Bennu, a potentially hazardous asteroid.
These missions, like Hayabsua2 and OSIRIS-REx, have a certain danger of contaminating Earth with alien viruses. Or at least so it would seem. Hayabusa recently landed its sample return-mission in Australia.
In The Andromeda Strain novel (Michael Crichton, 1969), a United States satellite crashes near Piedmont, New Mexico, bringing with it a lethal alien microbe that quickly takes human victims and unleashes a scientists’ race to contain its spread. And while the plot of the aforementioned novel is fictional, it explores a genuine concern of space agencies and world governments: that astronauts or our robots unintentionally contaminate our planet with extraterrestrial organisms or vice versa we contaminate other planets by visiting them.
It is an old fear that has now gained new relevance in the face of the COVID-19 era. This was recently recalled by Scott Hubbard, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford University and former director of the NASA Ames Center.
“I have heard from some colleagues in the area of human space flight that they can see how, in the current environment, citizens could become more concerned about the arrival of some microbe, virus, or extraterrestrial contamination,” Hubbard revealed.
Hubbard is a co-author of a paper published last month by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, outlining the recent findings and making recommendations on “planetary protection” or “planetary quarantine” (safeguarding Earth and other worlds of biological cross-contamination).
In the paper, professor Hubbard discusses the long history of protecting the planet, the dilemma posed by Elon Musk’s launch of a Tesla Roadster into space, and precautions to be taken against possible contamination from the mission that will bring samples of Mars, slated to start next northern summer with the launch of NASA’s Perseverance rover.
Regarding the last point, Hubbard argues that combinations of chemical cleaning, heat sterilization, highly sterilizing space radiation, and intelligent mechanical systems greatly minimize the possibility that the rocks of Mars contain some form of active life that could infect the planet.
However, he emphasizes that it is essential to quarantine the samples and treat them “as if they were the Ebola virus until they are shown to be completely safe.”