If life exists on other worlds, its probably does so in the form of weird little bacteria or primitive multicellular microbes evolved to withstand harsh conditions. But even if size and the lack of central nervous systems make extraterrestrials fairly easy to collect, researchers will still have to contain them. In order to do so responsibly, space agencies and private companies will need to adopt protocols and invest in the infrastructure necessarily to safely house alien life. If history has demonstrated anything, it’s that foreign pathogens can be devastating.
Aliens — even tiny aliens — need homes too. And a group of scientists is about to build them one.
To some degree, measures are in place. The crews of the Apollo missions brought back 842 pounds worth of lunar rocks back to Earth — and they didn’t do it haphazardly. When those samples were picked up from the return capsules, they were stored in quarantine until scientists could be certain no organic materials or living organism had embedded in the rock. Those precautions were taken even though few scientists actually believed that the lunar environment could be conducive to extraterrestrial life. Likewise, JAXA’s Hayabusa 2 mission retrieved samples from a near-Earth asteroid. Those will arrive back on Earth in 2020 and they will be handled with care, but the odds of those samples containing life or the ingredients for life are extremely slim. Same with NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission.
However, private and public Mars missions have created the very real possibility that we may discover signs of ancient or current life on another world. To that end, NASA’s Mars 2020 rover is specifically designed to retrieve a sample of Mars for future return, especially if there’s evidence of life. And, as of now, neither NASA nor any other major space institution has a clear framework in mind for how to permanently house that sample.
The consortium of scientists hoping to step in with a solution go by EURO-CARES, an alien-embracing acronym for European Curation of Astromaterials Returned from Exploration of Space. A three-year project funded under the European Commission’s Horizon2020 research program and based on research conducted by scientists from around the world, EURO-CARES will create a plan and a facility for curating samples returned from other planets, moons, and near-Earth objects. The project is currently focussed on developing blueprints for a potential European Sample Curation Facility, along with feasible mechanisms for transporting samples back and forth across space.
“So far, it is only theoretical work,” Aurore Hutzler, a researcher working for EURO-CARES, tells Inverse. “No building phase is planned. However, building a curation facility in Europe would be a step forward for space exploration here.”
Though NASA and JAXA have their own sample curation tools, ESA lacks any such thing. EURO-CARES wants to be the premier facility for all sample return missions. “EURO-CARES is looking at a large overview, samples from everywhere,” says Hutzler. Everywhere specifically includes Saturn’s moons Titan and Enceladus as well as Jupiter’s moon Europa.
EURO-CARES is exploring an area that NASA and JAXA have historically ignored: dealing with restricted samples (aka biohazards). How is EURO-CARES looking to accomplish this? Technology has, in recent years, made it considerably easier to mitigate risk.
“For example,” says Hutzler, “”we can now consider robotics as valuable input for sample curation, while it was not possible a few years ago.”
For restricted samples, explains Hutzler, specific rules apply. “The facility will not be opened if the risk of releasing an unknown biological agent is too high.” She cites Biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) protocols as the inspiration for what EURO-CARES has in mind for such samples. “Based on some BSL-4 success stories, we are recommending to keep an open and honest communication with the various stakeholders, regarding curation and science in the facility. It is especially crucial to reassure local populations, that if the facility is built and opened, it will be completely safe.”
BSL-4 regulations include changing clothing before entering, showering upon exiting, and decontaminating all materials that leave the lab — no exceptions. Hutzler mentions other things that can ensure a safe environment where no contaminants enter or exit the facility, such as positive pressure airflow.
The difference in this case is that EURO-CARES has to consider how BSL-4 works in terms of planetary protection: the guiding principle that says humans should prevent contaminating other worlds with life from Earth, and vice versa. Right now, any restricted sample that’s brought into a lab environment with BSL-4 protocols is, obviously, originating from Earth. But what might be the effects of something that’s endemic to another planet? Presumably, if it’s pathogenic, it’s probably equipped to navigate through tough environments — making it exceptionally lethal and dangerous.
And that’s what worries so many people about the idea of bringing back samples from space to study here on Earth. Those concerns, however, aren’t exactly well-founded. Hutzler emphasizes a few things: First, an extraterrestrial microbe probably has a really low chance of being able to survive Earth just due to how different the environment here is compared to other places. For instance, the abundance of free oxygen or carbon dioxide might itself be absolutely lethal to an alien organism, among a host of other elements.
Even if a microbe survives, “it might not be harmful,” says Hutzler. Pathogens on Earth have evolved such that they are able to attack specific cell receptors on host organisms and wreak havoc. But they evolved those mechanisms alongside their host organisms. The chances of an alien having developed receptor antigens that would affect humans despite having evolved on an entirely different world are pretty slim.
Nevertheless, EURO-CARES is keeping all these issues in mind as it moves forward. And their work is already progressing nicely. “We are nearing the end of technical work packages,” says Hutzler, and each subgroup will be delivering their final reports by the end of March. “The next step is coordinating all these reports, and showing our results to the community during a workshop in July.”
Depending on the outcomes of the workshop, the project might have follow-up plans in store after the December 2017 end date.
Whatever kinds of proposals come out of EURO-CARES are likely to lead to something tangible soon. It’s only a matter of time before humans stumble on something that elicits equal parts excitement and fear — and the only way to validate or assuage those responses will be to directly study samples here on Earth.