The exciting discovery that the Red Planet may once had flowing water has reawakened speculation about life on Mars, although any samples brought back to Earth will go straight into biosafety cabinets within a NASA containment facility.
Laminar air flow has been part of space exploration since the UN drew up its ‘Space Treaty’ in 1967, to prevent alien microbes from contaminating our environment – and vice versa. Back-contamination from extraterrestrial microbes was considered a real threat, and returning astronauts had to spend three weeks at the NASA Lunar Receiving Laboratory (LRL), living in a Mobile Quarantine Facility breathing HEPA-filtered air maintained under negative pressure. The primary level for containment for studying the samples was a Class 3 biohazard safety cabinet within a vacuum chamber.
The Committee on Space Research has adapted the procedures of 1967, dividing them into five categories. Category 1 represents missions with virtually zero risk of contamination, while Restricted Category 5 missions are those which land on a foreign body that possibly could sustain life – and return with samples. While these carry the highest risk of back-contamination, it’s a two-way process. The unmanned craft Surveyor 3 was built in a class 100,000 filtered laminar flow clean room, but still managed to transport streptococci bacteria to the moon’s surface – where they lived for three years.
NASA is currently working with three designers to create the ultimate biocontainment facility, equipped with biosafety cabinets that will protect both personnel and the samples brought back from Mars. The Lander that brings them back will have been constructed under ULPA-filtered laminar air flow, in a Class 100 hyper-scrubbed clean room with atmospheric barriers.