ICAMSR - International Committee Against Mars Sample Return

The International Committee Against Mars Sample Return

The purpose of ICAMSR1 is to increase public awareness of the Mars Sample Return along with any possible negative consequences that could occur due to the MSR canister(s) either becoming opened unintentionally on impact, or lost during entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. Engineering reports regarding the structural integrity of these sample return vehicles in drop tests from aircraft will try to be obtained and published on the ICAMSR Home Page.

The ICAMSR will gather the signatures of concerned scientists, environmental groups, and individuals who oppose the Passive Earth-Entry capsule design who feel that it is a risky approach to examining potentially biologically active solar system samples (until proven otherwise) within the fragile biosphere and ecosystems of the Earth.

It should be noted that the ICAMSR is opposed only to current Planetary/Cometary Sample Return mission scenarios involving direct return to Earth. However, the ICAMSR fully supports the analysis of returned solar system samples aboard the International Space Station, provided it is equipped with a suitable CDC-like biohazard containment module. The ICAMSR therefore officially adopts NASA's 1981 study "The Antaeus Report"2 as the basis for the safe examination of suspected biologically active solar system samples within the vicinity of the Earth. Having planetary/cometary samples certified as "biosphere safe" in space or in-situ before they are transferred to the Earth’s surface is our main goal and intention. The ICAMSR will not attempt to stop or impede the progress of the robotic search for life in the solar system. This includes both in-situ life sciences experiments, and planetary sample return missions examined in Earth orbit.

It should be mentioned that transfer of the sample return canisters to the Space Shuttle cargo-bay for Earth return has been suggested as an alternative to having the such canisters crash-land on Earth. Unfortunately, due to the fact that a serious problem could in effect cause the Space Shuttle to crash or explode with the possible biohazardous samples aboard, this method is not supported by ICAMSR.

A Possible MSR Danger

On Earth, we know that dust carries bacteria, lots of it. NASA is aware of this fact whenever they put space probe hardware together in their dust limited vehicle assembly buildings at KSC. This is to limit terrestrial contamination of Mars and other solar system bodies.

Mars is a very dusty planet. No doubt, when the MSR ascent vehicle and sample return capsule leave the surface of Mars, dust will probably be adhering to the exterior surfaces of these spacecraft. Ferric oxide is one of the suspected components of Martian dust and a Martian organism imbedded in such a dust particle could be shielded from ultraviolet light and survive the journey back to Earth in a lyophilized (freeze dried) state.3 Once free in Earth’s biosphere, the dust/bacteria clumps could be transported about the planet.

It has been argued that the tremendous heating of the exterior of the Passive Earth-Entry sample return canister during atmospheric reentry would completely sterilize the outer surfaces. However, any rough surface areas such as screw holes, dents, or other such microbial hiding places, might offer limited protection for a fleck of Martian dust with an organism attached. All things must be considered.

According to Dr. Carl Sagan, "one terrestrial microorganism reproducing as slowly as once a month on Mars, without other ecological limitations, in less than a decade would result in a microbial population of the Martian soil comparable to Earth"4. What if the reverse is true of a single Martian microorganism that could reproduce on the Earth?

Because of the unknown nature of any toxins or pathogenic viruses/bacteria which Martian soil could contain, absolute certainty regarding the protection of Earth’s fragile biosphere must be enforced by demanding that all solar system samples be examined in space before being committed to the biosphere of the Earth.5

Who Belongs to the ICAMSR?

All individuals, scientists, and environmental groups who request in writing that their names be added to the growing ICAMSR list and who sign and return the ICAMSR petition will automatically become members. There are no membership fees or dues. Planetary Protection involves every living person on our planet, and therefore everyone should have an opportunity to voice their concerns regardless of their financial situation. The list of ICAMSR members worldwide will then be used as a protest to have NASA and other space-faring nations to change their approach to planetary sample return missions.

Although the likelihood of biohazard with the Stardust mission is assumed to be less threatening by NASA scientists than a Mars Sample Return – the ICAMSR still intends to report on all aspects of this mission. The recent finding of organic material in Comet Wild-2 by the Stardust spacecraft should alert scientists to the research of Hoyle and Wickramasinghe:

The ultimate goal of the ICAMSR will be to lobby Congress, the United Nations, and environmental groups that solar system sample missions using the Passive Earth-Entry concept be cancelled. ICAMSR will only support planetary/cometary life sciences missions that obtain in-situ information before materials are transferred to the vicinity of the Earth.

Direct all correspondence to:

Barry DiGregorio, Director for ICAMSR
16 N. Hartland Street
Middleport, New York 14105
United States of America (USA)

or contact:

  • Email to info@icamsr.org
  • >

  • Phone at (716) 735-7096

  • The ICAMSR Charter and Scope of Activities

    • The ICAMSR will urge the United Nations and its constituent member states to address the enormous potential biohazard of a Mars Sample Return mission along with other planetary/cometary sample missions to Earth’s life and environment.

    • The ICAMSR will ask NASA and the world scientific community to reopen the case of the Viking Biology and GCMS tests carried out on the surface of Mars in 1976. Because of recent advances in the study of life in extreme environments on Earth and the realization that the Viking GCMS Organic Analysis experiment was not sensitive enough to eliminate the possibility of life on Mars, we will ask that all scientific avenues to this issue be exploited thoroughly. ICAMSR will seek to have appointed an objective international panel of experts to review the existing data bearing on extraterrestrial life, with particular emphasis on the findings in the meteorites from Mars and Viking mission life detection experiments, and then commission it to report on the probability of life on Mars. Furthermore:

    1. This appointed independent international review panel will perform a benefit/risk study for a direct return Mars sample based on that probability.
    2. Determine what level of risk the direct return sample to Earth should be proscribed.
    3. Review studies proposing remote examination of Mars samples prior to return to Earth.
    4. Develop and adopt an International Mars Sample/Planetary Return program, requiring adherence by all space-faring nations.
    • The ICAMSR will lobby Congress, the United Nations, organized environmental groups, scientists, and concerned individuals and demand that NASA and all other space-faring nations cancel or implement changes to current solar system sample return missions designed to enter directly into Earth’s biosphere/atmosphere. Solar System objects which might contain biohazardous organisms include: Planets, Moons, Comets, and Asteroids.

    • The ICAMSR will ask the United Nations, COSPAR, and other space policy implementation groups to encourage an environmental protection policy act to protect the environment of Mars from further contamination by improperly sterilized spacecraft. Because of its ancient preserved pristine environment, Mars may hold the key to understanding the early origin of life on Earth and possibly the universe. Therefore ICAMSR recommends that NASA and other space-faring nations re-adopt the Viking Class Sterilization Protocol for all spacecraft lander missions, whether or not they have life detection instruments.

    • ICAMSR will distribute news and information on the progress being made in the field of astrobiology and planetary science missions – with a special emphasis on forward and back contamination with inbound and outbound planetary spacecraft missions.

    • The ICAMSR will advocate the human exploration of solar system bodies only after they have been proven to be safe, from a biological and toxic standpoint, and only after any indigenous life forms have been studied thoroughly. This policy supports robotic missions first, human missions later. However, the ICAMSR would support the concept of a Manned Mars Orbiting Laboratory (MMOL) designed to analyze robotically returned Martian soil samples in Martian orbit. This concept would serve to put a human presence around Mars during the time period it would take to study indigenous life-forms without contaminating the environment of Mars with human waste or microbes. Furthermore, the Manned Mars Orbiting Laboratory concept could be used as a launching platform to the outer solar system bodies for both manned and unmanned missions.

    1. Alan Boyle, "The Big Question About Life On Mars," MSNBC News article, 1998.
    2. Orbiting Quarantine Facility, "The Antaeus Report," NASA SP-454, Washington, D.C. 1981.
    3. Space Science News, "Earth Microbes on the Moon," NASA News Release, September 1, 1998.
    4. Sagan, Carl, et al., "Contamination of Mars," Science, Vol. 159, Number 3820, page 1191, March 1968.
    5. Can Martian microbes endanger the Earth?
    Do some germs arrive to Earth from comets?

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    Last updated February 9, 2009.
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