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Transcript
 Foreign objects
What are the long-term ramifications for space travel? What might we
unknowingly do? Read our background information and decide what you
think
Look at the picture of a satellite being built. With
their scrubs and masks, you’d be forgiven for
thinking the people working on the space hardware
were surgeons who had strayed into the wrong
building. Yet the logic behind their attire is the
same: minimising contamination.
What if we sent a rover to Mars that was covered
in bacteria? Or we drilled down through the ice to
the vast oceans on Europa and accidentally left
behind some microbes? Our knowledge of
extremophiles has shown us that it is not beyond
the realms of possibility that Earthly life could
continue to live in these harsh conditions. What if
the life we accidentally introduce kills off any
native species before we’ve had a chance to find
them?
It works the other way too. There is a growing
scientific appetite for sample return missions –
those where robots (or people) go to planets,
asteroids, comets and moons and bring back
material to Earth for analysis. What if there is alien
life resident on those objects and we inadvertently
introduce it to our biosphere? It may thrive here,
rapidly evolve and cause us no end of problems.
Satellite being built
CC BY NC ND ESA/CNES
For these reasons we are currently extremely careful about quarantining anything brought back from
beyond Earth orbit. When the Apollo 11 astronauts returned from the Moon, they had to wear special
biological containment suits when on the deck of the aircraft carrier that rescued them from their
This resource first appeared in ‘Big Picture: Space Biology’ in June 2015. Published by the
Wellcome Trust, a charity registered in England and Wales, no. 210183.
bigpictureeducation.com
ocean splashdown. They then spent three weeks in a quarantine trailer to make sure they hadn’t
brought any biological material back from the Moon.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
Given these concerns, is bringing material back to Earth worth the risk?
Are we doing enough to make sure we are safe?
REFERENCES
European Space Agency: ESA image
Space.com: Apollo 11 astronauts went through Customs upon return from Moon
Wired.com: Plan to avoid contaminating other worlds
This resource first appeared in ‘Big Picture: Space Biology’ in June 2015. Published by the
Wellcome Trust, a charity registered in England and Wales, no. 210183.
bigpictureeducation.com