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Scientists and engineers are working out plans for bringing samples of Mars to Earth in about a decade. But getting the material home is only the first step. We also need a place to study and store the samples — one that protects the samples from Earth, and Earth from the samples.
NASA built a lab for Moon rocks in the 1960s, and it’s still operating. Today, it also houses meteorites from Mars and the Moon, plus samples from a couple of asteroids.
But it’s not good enough to house samples from Mars. That’s because Mars is considered a much more likely home for microscopic life than the Moon was. The odds are extremely small. But no one wants to contaminate Earth with Martian “bugs.” And if the samples contain life — or evidence of life — no one wants to contaminate it by letting in anything from Earth.
So scientists are pondering what it will take to house the samples, do early studies on them, and parcel them out to researchers around the world. They know they’ll need clean rooms that provide a much more sterile environment than any hospital operating room. They’ll need special tools for handling the samples, and special cases to store them in.
It’ll take a few more years to lock down the details and get ready to receive pieces of Mars.
Mars is in great view right now. It’s low in the east-northeast as night falls, and looks like a bright orange star. It arcs high across the sky during the night.
Script by Damond Benningfield