ICAMSR - International Committee Against Mars Sample Return


Article IX of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967
"In the exploration and use of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, States Parties to the Treaty shall be guided by the principle of co-operation and mutual assistance and shall conduct all their activities in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, with due regard to the corresponding interests of all other States Parties to the Treaty. States Parties to the Treaty shall pursue studies of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, and conduct exploration of them so as to avoid their harmful contamination and also adverse changes in the environment of the Earth resulting from the introduction of extraterrestrial matter and, where necessary, shall adopt appropriate measures for this purpose. If a State Party to the Treaty has reason to believe that an activity or experiment planned by it or its nationals in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, would cause potentially harmful interference with activities of other States Parties in the peaceful exploration and use of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, it shall undertake appropriate international consultations before proceeding with any such activity or experiment. A State Party to the Treaty which has reason to believe that an activity or experiment planned by another State Party in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, would cause potentially harmful interference with activities in the peaceful exploration and use of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, may request consultation concerning the activity or experiment."

In an exclusive Op Ed written for ICAMSR titled "WILL THE MSR BE INFECTED BY THE COVID-19?" ICAMSR Science Advisor Dr. Gilbert V. Levin shares his unique perspective on NASA's current plans to return Martian rock and soil samples directly to the Earth. Levin, now in his 90's, is the only surviving Principal Investigator of the 1976 NASA Viking Lander biology team. He has maintained for the last 44 years that his Viking biology detection instrument (officially known as the Labeled Release experiment) found active microbial metabolism in the soil of Mars. Levin, also an original member of NASA'S Planetary Quarantine Advisory Panel, has always thought bringing samples of Mars directly to Earth could put the Earth's biosphere in danger from possible pathogens.

The Moon: A 100% isolation barrier for Earth during exobiological examination of solar system sample return missions.
Barry E. DiGregorio, Buckingham Centre for Astrobiology

In the near future, space faring nations including NASA plan to bring back to laboratories on Earth samples of soil and rocks from Mars that could contain possible pathogenic viruses and/or bacteria. Read the NASA Report and The Quarantine and Certification of Martian Samples

In light of the loss due to human error of many of the spacecraft sent to Mars over the course of the space age, the International Committee Against Mars Sample Return (ICAMSR) urges the scientific and environmental communities to consider avoiding the return of Martian samples directly to Earth as problems with electronic circuitry malfunctions are common as well as accidental impacts. The study of Martian soil and rocks for signs of life can be accomplished with in-situ life detection instruments on Mars, something NASA has not done since the twin Viking mission in 1976. The question must be asked: Do the benefits of studying Martian samples in laboratories on Earth outweigh the risk of contaminating our world? We only have one Earth. Two of the NASA Viking biology team astrobiologists, Gilbert V. Levin and Patricia Ann Straat have published numerous papers stating they believe that their biology instrument called the Labeled Release instrument discovered living microorganisms in Martian soil. This instrument put on both Viking Mars landers tested Martian soil nine times under a variety of conditions at two different landing sites. Read The dilemma of Mars sample return.

In his 1973 book "Carl Sagan's cosmic connection: an extraterrestrial perspective", Sagan says on page 114:

"Precisely because Mars is an environment of great potential biological interest, it is possible that on Mars there are pathogens, organisms which, if transported to the terrestrial environment, might do enormous biological damage - a Martian plague, the twist in the plot of H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds, but in reverse. This is an extremely grave point. On the one hand, we can argue that Martian organisms cannot cause any serious problems to terrestrial organisms, because there has been no biological contact for 4.5 billion years between Martian and terrestrial organisms. On the other hand, we can argue equally well that terrestrial organisms have evolved no defenses against potential Martian pathogens, precisely because there has been no such contact for 4.5 billion years. The chance of such an infection may be very small, but the hazards, if it occurs, are certainly very high."

Carl Sagan a founding member of The Planetary Society was a strong supporter of planetary protection early on in the space program and wrote about contaminating Mars and the Moon with Earth microbes often. Reporting on the possibility of some hardy hitchhiking Earth microbes reproducing on Mars, Sagan along with colleagues Joshua Lederberg and Elliott Levinthal published a 1968 paper entitled "Contamination of Mars" in the journal Science(v.159, pages 1191- 1196a)where they wrote, "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 the Earth." This single sentence illustrates how important it is not only to sterilize spacecraft going to Mars, but also to avoid bringing samples from Mars back to Earth for study.

Another world-renowned scientist who opposed the idea of returning Martian soil and rock samples to Earth was the late Carl Woese, the Nobel Prize-nominated biophysicist who while at the University of Illinois discovered the third domain of life - the Archaea. Woese told ICAMSR in 2001:

"When the entire biosphere hangs in the balance, it is adventuristic to the extreme to bring Martian life here. Sure, there is a chance it would do no harm; but that is not the point. Unless you can rule out the chance that it might do harm, you should not embark on such a course."

Gilbert V. Levin who claims that his Viking Labeled Release experiment discovered microbial life on Mars in 1976 says:

"I fear that, even if a safe Mars Sample Return container could be made and brought to Earth, there is a good probability that some of the sample would escape from the 'secure' lab where the container would be opened". Levin also questions the scientific rationale of returning samples form Mars, "How could we get a living sample to survive the 9 or 10-month journey from Mars without knowing what any Martian microorganisms present in the sample need in the way of substrates, water, temperature, atmosphere, environmental cycling, etc.? Would we ever know whether it started out alive or dead?"

The Untold Truth: How The NASA Viking Mission Found Life On Mars DVD is now available on Amazon.com for both purchase and rent. Former NASA Viking Lander astrobiologist Gilbert V. Levin describes in detail how his biology instrument flown on NASA's twin Viking Lander mission found living microbes in the soil of Mars. A new supporting scientific paper supports his conclusion.

NASA/JPL Press Release: Missing Piece Inspires New Look at Mars Puzzle

September 03, 2010 - PASADENA, Calif. -- Experiments prompted by a 2008 surprise from NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander suggest that soil examined by NASA's Viking Mars landers in 1976 may have contained carbon-based chemical building blocks of life.
Read the full story here.

A new paper being published in the Journal of Geophysical Research with the title "Reanalysis of the Viking results suggests perchlorate and organics at mid-latitudes on Mars" by Rafael Navarro-Gonzalez et al shows that the Viking gas chromatograph mass spectrometer (GCMS) actually found a surprisingly significant amount of organic material in Martian soil at both the Viking 1 and Viking 2 landing sites on Mars. This now reopens the door to the results obtained by the Viking biology experiments - a door that has been largely closed for 34 years due to the misinterpretation of the Viking organic analysis by the GCMS. The authors of the new paper conclude sending a life detection instrument to Mars on a future mission should be a high priority.

Paper citation:

Navarro-Gonzalez, R., E. Vargas, J. de la Rosa, A. C. Raga, and C. P. McKay (2010), Reanalysis of the Viking results suggests perchlorate and organics at mid-latitudes on Mars, J. Geophys. Res., doi:10.1029/2010JE003599, in press. (accepted 19 August 2010)

Another 10 years before NASA send a life detection experiment to Mars?

The prospect of 10 more years without in-situ life detection attempts on Mars, in the face of enthusiasm raised by recent advances in the field of astrobiology, impelled many members of the scientific community to join the authors of this article in formulating a petition to the NASA Decadal Survey calling for inclusion of a life detection mission as one of its priorities for the coming decade. Within a few days, more than 130 cosigners endorsed the petition, which was sent to the NASA Decadal Survey steering committee on 11 May 2010. The text of that petition is presented here (used by permission).

Since going online January 2000 ICAMSR has served as the people's astroenvironmental awareness organization respecting Article IX of the United Nations Outer Space Treaty.

It is likely that life on Mars was discovered by the Viking Labeled Release experiment in 1976 by Gilbert V. Levin and Patricia A. Straat two former NASA astrobiologists. Recent findings of methane plumes on Mars by NASA scientists now seem to confirm this discovery.

Online since January, 2000.

Last updated November 7, 2021.
Copyright 1999-2021 ICAMSR