Talk:Mars sample return mission

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Offical POV on environmental disruption of the Earth by MSR now gone[edit]

There is now AFIK no mention anywhere in wikipedia of the possibility of the environmental disruption of the Earth by a Mars sample return, except under ICAMSR as an extremist view. There is also no mention of the need for international debate..

This is one of the main reasons the studies advocate extreme caution during sample return. The aim of the studies of course is to prevent any environmental disruption from happening. Although low probability, it becomes significant because worst case scenario is so extreme.

The official view is that there is a low probabiliy of a risk of environmental disruption and it can be prevented.

The view of the ICAMSR is that at current levels of understanding of Mars and with current technology it can't yet be prevented with sufficient levels of assurance.

All agree it is low prob. No reason has been given for leaving out this material. All I got were ad hominem arguments repeated ad nauseum against my competence for writing on the subject. I got no comment at all on my proposal to address issues of bias by working with a collaborator with opposite POV.

I know I am not welcome here and won't attempt to contribute on contamination issues to wikipedia any more for at least some considerable time. Just posting this to show what the outcome was of my suggestion to correct the bias and issues in the current section.

The current section Potential for back contamination is highly biased towards the views of the Mars surface colonization lobby, and has several major errors of fact in it (see above). My attempts to add POV-section and dubious tags to it were reverted, so readers of the page have no way to know it is considered by some to be controversial and dubious and that there is an open discussion of its bias on this page. The Back-contamination page has been merged away and made into a brief totally inadequate section in Interplanetary contamination and it is clear that this material is not welcome anywhere in wikipedia. It is notable, and describes results of studies published by authorities with the highest reputation in the space industry.

Robert Walker (talk) 07:13, 11 July 2013 (UTC)

See WP:WEIGHT. We don't normally cover extreme minority points of view in articles. For example, in the Earth article we don't discuss the theory that the Earth is hollow. In the Moon article, we don't discuss Moon Nazis. To be sure, these are valid and scientifically testable points of view, but we don't cover them in the respective articles because we are an encyclopedia, not a soapbox for novel ideas. By all means, you should continue to explore back contamination issues on your own, since you obviously have an interest in this area, but please don't attempt to contaminate Wikipedia with your own personal points of view. That's not allowed. Sławomir Biały (talk) 14:48, 11 July 2013 (UTC)
Yes of course. The thing is that the current section in this article is incorrect when it says it is a view of the ICAMSR only. The ESF study and the office of Planetary Protection and the National Research Council studies all clearly state that the possibility of environmental disruption of the Earth is one of the things you have to take precautions to prevent. They also clearly state the need for international public debate because in the worst case scenario (very low probability), all countries could be impacted by the results.
The ICAMSR differ because they feel those precautions are inadequate, but apart from Zubrin all those who have published on it agree that it is a risk. You just need to read the sources to see this, e.g. the OPP page or the ESF report. Robert Walker (talk) 15:56, 11 July 2013 (UTC)
By removing all that material the current section presents a view close to that of Zubrin, that there is no environmental risk to take precautions against and no need for international debate, which is as much a minority view as the ICAMSR. Robert Walker (talk) 15:56, 11 July 2013 (UTC)
Also I am not a SPA. If you look at the last month then I have hardly written on anything else because an article I wrote on this topic was contested in an edit war and AfD that went on and on, and because after that, almost all the material I wrote on contamination issues was removed from wikipedia. I normally write on many topics. But in the last couple of months have been faced with an editor who has an obsession with removing all the material on contamination issues. For that reason, by attempting to defend that material, I seem like a SPA. But really it is he who is the SPA if anyone is, focusing his activities for some weeks now almost entirely on removing that material while I have attempted to save it. Look further back in time and his account had few minor edits. Take a look at what WP wrote before he started on this campaign of removing my material: Warren Platts contributions. Compare what I wrote: Robert Inventor Contributions. Who is the SPA? Robert Walker (talk) 16:07, 11 July 2013 (UTC)
There's a dissonance in the above reply here between your rhetoric and the reality of what the sources actually say. For instance, I don't see how the article currently fails to reflect accurately the conclusions of the ESF study. Sławomir Biały (talk) 16:49, 11 July 2013 (UTC)
Have you read the ESF report? Or the Office of Planetary Protection page? I summarize it here. View presented in the NRC and ESF study group reports and Planetary Protection Office summaries. Those are quotes from the sources and if you check them out, are not taken out of context, that is just what they say.
If you want to engage in a reasoned discussion of it, whether I present the material clearly, or any flaws in my presentation, I am only too delighted to do so. Robert Walker (talk) 17:00, 11 July 2013 (UTC)
Note that Battery Included has just archived the section where I point out all the issues with the current BC section of this article, an open topic. BI has several times archived open discussions started by me, and WP has also done it. See below for link to the archived posts: Robert Walker (talk) 23:25, 11 July 2013 (UTC)

Bias and errors in the back contamination section[edit]

This is an open discussion of the bias and errors in the BC section of the current article. It has just been archived by BatteryIncluded. For reference, here it is, so you can still read it and see what the issues are with that section:

Bias and errors in the back contamination section

In brief summary, based on the Office of Planetary Protection and studies sponsored by the National Research Council, European Space Foundation and SETI (for the legal material):

  1. Article says risk is likely to be zero. The PPO says that the risk is thought to be very low but not demonstrably zero. Why not use the actual words of the OPP? (Especially so if the statements are different in meaning as WP claims).
  2. It says that a biohazard 4 facility is sufficient. The studies say biohazard 4 containment is required but not sufficient to contain a MSR, because it has to contain unknown biohazards possibly smaller than an ultramicrobacteria, and must also double as a clean room. This needs a new design, as no existing facility has these capabilities.
  3. On the legal situation it only mentions the domestic legal requirements. The sources prominently discuss international legal requirements.
  4. It represents concerns about environmental disruption of the Earth as an ICAMSR concern only. This concern dates back to Carl Sagan and is shared by all the official studies as a worst case scenario.
The difference between the ICAMSR and the official POV is over whether the hazard can be contained. There is no dissension over the nature of the worst case hazard.

Those are the inaccuracies. The bias arises because the overall impression as a result of those omissions is that back contamination is a minor matter easily contained, and of no significance. That is the POV of Zubrin, a minority POV which is as extreme as the POV of the ICAMSR in the opposite direction.

I tagged the BC section of this page with a POV-section tag pointing to that discussion, and a dubious tag to the section but they were removed the same day by WarrenPlatts with the discussion the POV-section pointed to open, which you are not supposed to do. Robert Walker (talk) 23:52, 11 July 2013 (UTC)

Removal of templates[edit]

Templates were added to a section of this article. The templates were then removed without discussion, only with an edit summary. An edit summary is not the means to remove maintenance templates. Either discussion on the article talk page (here) or a content RFC is the means for agreeing to the removal of templates. I have restored the templates. I think that the editor who placed the templates wants too much content about concerns of back-contamination, but that does not justify removing the templates without discussion. Robert McClenon (talk) 23:48, 11 July 2013 (UTC)

I removed the templates because they were mere vandalism. POV tags are not to be used as a consolation prize for losing an AfD. The issue of POV re: MSR was discussed ad nauseum in the old "Concerns" article and the AfD. Sorry you missed all that discussion. The consensus of the AfD was that the highly abridged version of the article was adequately NPOV and that it should be merged to form the BC section of the main MSR article. Furthermore, the actual deletion of the tags was in fact discussed (briefly) on these talk pages here andhere. Warren Platts (talk) 21:10, 12 July 2013 (UTC)
Well, we've received several comments and everyone but Robert Walker agrees that the article section is pretty much fair and balanced. In addition, adjustments to phraseology in the section have been made in order to further improve it. Therefore, I presume there will be no objections to removing the POV tags now. Cheers, Warren Platts (talk) 14:35, 13 July 2013 (UTC)
Tag removal is OK, given direction of the RFC below. I note the RFC itself remains open, however. DanHobley (talk) 17:31, 13 July 2013 (UTC)
I object because though there has been progress in the RfC with addition of the statement "The scientific consensus is that the potential for large-scale effects,..."
* it still has no mention of the need for international debate,
I regard this as advocacy of a position (i.e., POV) in itself; I don't think it should be on Wikipedia. DanHobley (talk) 22:22, 13 July 2013 (UTC)
That paper is the work of Margaret Race. Before working for SETI as their senior research scientist, she worked for the Planetary Protection Agency, and in her paper she simply summarizes the legal situation and does not engage in advocacy. I don't think it is at all right to exclude it on the grounds that it advocates a course of action. The only thing it advocates is that NASA needs to be careful and be aware of all these laws and their legal implications as it proceeds. Because of course ignoring the legal ramifications at this stage won't make them go away, and in the present modern world you can't just brush them aside as NASA did for the quarantine regulations before Apollo 11. That sort of action wouldn't work nowadays. Robert Walker (talk) 01:26, 14 July 2013 (UTC)
We now detail the international problems, but not her suggested solutions. I think that's fair for a short section like this. DanHobley (talk) 01:49, 14 July 2013 (UTC)
Legal situation needs more work in my view, have moved my comments to a new section so is easier to find and discuss.
As for your edit comment about wikipedia needing to be careful I'd have thought so long as you clearly state that it is the conclusions of the ESF, or in this case Margaret Race, attribute it to the source, rather than put it in the voice of Wikipedia, would be a way to do it. There are plenty of articles about details of laws on wikipedia and legal situations so must be possible to talk about them here.
Altogether though, it is a massive improvement' in accuracy. I hope the other editors let it remain in this state. Robert Walker (talk) 02:46, 14 July 2013 (UTC)
* it is incorrect when it says "In contrast, the International Committee Against Mars Sample Return[40] argues that MSR back contamination could result in potential widespread ecological disruption. "
I have now successfully gained access to the ICAMSR website, which was down a couple days ago. While I agree with WP that the tone of this site is very "fringe-y" and they do heavily imply that they believe there is a potentially high risk to human health (e.g., the swipes about BSE in their head's essay), they don't actually say it in so many words. Thus, I've rephrased the critical sentence in the article. I think this new version is fully supported by the website mission statements etc. Hope you think this is an improvement (both of you). DanHobley (talk) 22:22, 13 July 2013 (UTC)
* That argument is due to Sagan and agreed on by everyone in the debate except Zubrin. If you want to single out anyone as regards their opinion on whether this is possible at all, you should single out Zubrin as the only one, at least in the published literature, who doesn't hold this view.
I'm actually quite happy to include something about the "other extreme" in that final closing paragraph. But I'm not willing to go on a lit trawl myself. Could you dig out a specific quote and reference for Zubin declaring NASA's approach excessive? I mean more than just him saying the risk is probably close to zero; I want him saying it is zero. From the formal literature if at all possible, but I'll consider anything. DanHobley (talk) 22:27, 13 July 2013 (UTC)
Dan, all I have is a transcript from an interview. He goes into more detail in a paper which I don't have but possibly you have access to? What I have so far is here: Robert Zubrin's view that back contamination risk has no scientific validity which links to the interview transcript, and also gives the citation for the paper he wrote. Robert Walker (talk) 01:18, 14 July 2013 (UTC)
Zubrin, 2010, "Human Mars Exploration: The Time Is Now": J. Cosmol. (12), p.3549-3557 (link [1], though I have no idea if that's public access) contains his position on back contamination, and it is very dismissive. I'll work this in, I think. DanHobley (talk) 01:44, 14 July 2013 (UTC)
Okay yes I can read that Journal of Cosmology is public access. Yes that's right. Difficulty with working it in is that all those points are answered in the earlier NRC study which goes into all those issues in some detail, as of course you would expect from a scientific study.
So when summarizing them, rather than go into that whole debate which in a larger article could have a whole section for Zubrin to put his views and another section for the NRC and other authors and the details of their views and how they came to them, it's probably better to just have a short statement of his POV without really going into it too much why he thinks that (otherwise you would have to go into similar detail into why the NRC and ESF take their point of view). Anyway expect you can find some way to do it.
Good find, thanks. I expect the article I cited but was unable to obtain probably presents similar arguments. Robert Walker (talk) 02:25, 14 July 2013 (UTC)

In part, they cite lack of any evidence of prior organism transfer by the frequent meteorites exchanged between Mars and the Earth (current version of the section)

Dan, actually its the other way around, Zubrin says that any life there is on Mars would be able to survive the journey from Mars to Earth and that if it was going to make us extinct it has already happened. The NRC examined that and found that transfer of life is possible but happens rarely, more often in early solar system, (though arriving as a continuous stream on Earth only the largest impacts of impactors kms across can send meteorites to Earth, so they originate in only a few impacts on Mars, every few million years (most recently from an impact 0.7 million years ago). They pointed out as you say no direct evidence it has ever happened.
Then the NRC examined the records and found that though there is no recent evidence of disruption caused by life from Mars, the possibility of disruption of life on Earth caused by meteorite transfer from Mars couldn't be ruled out in the more distant past when it was more likely to happen (don't go into details in the study, but I assume they refer to the mass extinctions there - as many are poorly understood, and don't know what else you could expect to spot in the fossil record). They also found that many life forms could get here in a protected sample return capsule that wouldn't be able to get here on a Martian meteorite. All that is quite hard to summarize in a short sentence, to convey what he said without also conveying the mistaken impression that it is a knock out argument, which Zubrin believes, but no-one else does who writes on it. Robert Walker (talk) 08:37, 14 July 2013 (UTC)
* The mention of the biohazard facility is still misleading IMHO, not making it at all clear that it has to contain hazards that are unknown, with requirements that no existing biohazard laboratory are rated to be able to fulfill. Something like "Biosafety Level 4 biohazard containment facility with extra requirements to contain unknown lifeforms possibly smaller than ultramicrobacteria and also to double as a clean room" would at least indicate to the reader that it is more than a normal level 4 faciility while not quite conveying the level of the challenge that the detailed studies suggested.
I feel WP's "specially designed" from earlier today helped a lot here. He is right when he says elsewhere that it's not really possible to talk about "higher than BH4", as this is the top of the scale. I think the discussion of specific defences against hypothetical threats (e.g., nanobacteria) is a bit much, but I've tried to make some minor revisions to address your concerns here. DanHobley (talk) 22:39, 13 July 2013 (UTC)
Dan - the reason for the low size limit is due to ultramicrobacteria, not nanobes or nanobacteria. The ultramicrobacteria are non controversial, they exist. They set the size limit of 0.05 microns to make them half the size of the smallest known ultramicrobacteria to date - bear in mind this size may decrease further in the future. They said in the report that any release of a particle of more than 0.05 microns is unacceptable under any circumstances. They recommended no release of a particle more than 0.01 microns, because of concern for GTAs which could transfer genetic material from martian micro-organisms to Earth micro-organisms if they have a shared ancestry as is one possibility (there was a study that showed that GTAs mixed in sea water were taken up by half the micro-organisms in the water when left their overnight, not long before the report came out, making it clear GTAs are a concern and more significant than thought for the previous NRC report).
They said the 0.01 micron limit could be lifted by a panel of experts reviewing it if it was too expensive to achieve it and they thought there was reason enough to lift it but said the 0.05 one should not be lifted in any circumstances.
All this is in the ESF report, it is not my invention. They are totally clear about it. Robert Walker (talk) 01:12, 14 July 2013 (UTC)
Point taken, but I think the more general phrasing we now have here is adequate. I think mention of "size issues", with a clear link to the ESF report, would be adequate (now added). DanHobley (talk) 02:13, 14 July 2013 (UTC)
Yes that would do, with a clear link for reader who wants to find out more. Just had a look and can't actually see it in the section yet, but that sounds an okay solution to me. Robert Walker (talk) 02:27, 14 July 2013 (UTC)
Is fine now. Robert Walker (talk) 08:40, 14 July 2013 (UTC)
* Point of procedure, that WP as one of the main protagonists in the debate shouldn't be the one to close the RfC or remove the tags, that this should be done by some neutral uninvolved third party. Robert Walker (talk) 21:53, 13 July 2013 (UTC)
Put the tags back on Robert if you really want someone else to take them down. It's no skin off my nose. Warren Platts (talk) 22:02, 13 July 2013 (UTC)
Yes, that probably was bad form. But I was hoping to do so today myself anyway. At any rate, I hope the above goes most of the way towards meeting your outstanding concerns on this. I'm actually starting to feel that this section is (whisper it) pretty decent now. DanHobley (talk) 22:42, 13 July 2013 (UTC)

Comments on latest version[edit]

Thanks Dan, it is much better now. Still some things to fix.

"The releasing nation or nations would likely be liable for any resultant damages"

- the ESF looked into that and concluded, if the release happened during the actual sample return mission, then by the OST then the parties responsible would be liable with a liability unlimited in time or amount.

Under the Liability Convention (United Nations, 1971), the launching State is liable for “damages caused by the space object”. If a sample has detrimental consequences on Earth, it may be considered that the State having launched the spacecraft is liable under this convention (absolute liability without any ceiling either in amount or in time; Liability Convention Article 1 – loss of life, personal injury or impairment; or loss of or damage to property of States or of persons, natural or juridical, or property of international intergovernmental organisations)

User:Robertinventor/Mars_Sample_Return_Legal_Issues_and_International_Public_Debate#Legal_liability_in_case_of_damages (where I have proper sources for it)

The question was less clear if the release happened after return to the facility. They might in that case still be in the situation of unlimited liability. Or they might just be liable for an illegal act under general international law in violation of Article IX of the Outer Space Treaty. I'm not sure what the penalties are in that case they didn't go into detail. They didn't know which it was of those two.

Also you don't mention all the other international issues that Margaret Race describes, as I just observed above, plus many other domestic legal hurdles.

The EIS nad NEPA is reasonably standard I believe but the MSR would have many other legal things to deal with.

Particularly laws about quarantine where it's not clear how it would be done, as the old moon quarantine laws were rescinded. Creating new quarantine laws now would not be as easy as it was in the Apollo era.

Also presidential directive NSC-25, requires a review of large scale alleged effects on the environment and is carried out subsequent to the other domestic reviews and through a long process, leads eventually to presidential approval of the launch. Margaret Race in her paper thought it would probably apply to this situation.

Plus international laws to do with environment, and the sea and all the other things she says in that short para.

Then there is the recommendation of public debate in the ESF report

Potential negative consequences resulting from an unintended release could be borne by a larger set of countries than those involved in the programme. It is recommended that mechanisms and fora dedicated to ethical and social issues of the risks and benefits raised by an MSR are set up at the international level and are open to representatives of all countries.

which the theologian Richard Randolph goes into in more detail.

It would be good if that could be just mentioned, some phrase or other about need for international public debate or some such.

All in all though it is a major improvement since this morning. It is pretty much accurate now, I would say.

Basically deals with all my objections, except the international aspect and these extra internal legal elements. If those could somehow be mentioned in a sentence or too it woud be good given that you are talking about the legal situation.

The ICAMSR section is accurately stated now, in my view. Would be nice to have a short statement about Zubrin for balance.

I of course would like a quote from Carl Sagan, as the originator of the whole thing (something of a hero for me :) ). But that's not a requirement, it makes sense in a longer article where you have space to talk about the history of the thing. But what you have here instead covers a lot of information in a short amount of space and that also is good. Robert Walker (talk) 02:03, 14 July 2013 (UTC)

Provided it is permitted to stay in this latest form as edited by Dan Hobley then I approve removal of the tags as my POV concerns no longer apply and the dubious tagged statements have been changed and fixed so they are now accurate. The legal situation and international debate could do with some reworking IMO - see above, once that's done I'm happy with it.
Nice to have a short mention of Zubrin's view as well to balance the ICAMSR, if that can be worked in, like if you mention one extreme, makes sense to mention the other or you give the impression that it is just polarized between the official view and the ICAMSR.
It's more of a spectrum with Zubrin one end, ICAMSR the other, official views in the middle and many individuals taking different views somewhere along that spectrum. It is also more like a 2D (or multidimensional) thing because they also vary in views on science value of a MSR all the way from hardly any point in it, to thinking it is the most important thing NASA could do in the future.
Zubrin indeed, if I understand right, thinks a MSR right now though not a contamination risk, is also fairly pointless and too expensive for what it does as he doesn't see it advancing any towards human colonization of Mars which of course is his objective and wants in situ studies instead, and sample return would be later by humans. But that's getting too complicated for a short section. Robert Walker (talk) 02:50, 14 July 2013 (UTC)
Just legal situation now and need for public debate, plus last sentence about Zubrin needs rewrite (see above).
Short summary. As written suggest legal situation is relatively straightforward and similar to other missions that require these assessments. Actually would probably be the most complex mission legally since the Apollo era (don't have a citation for that but just to give a rough idea of what it is like) - and is harder to pass laws now than in the Apollo era.
It would require redoing the relevant quarantine legislation (the legislation for the Apollo era lunar rocks handling facility was rescinded and much harder to enact it nowadays than then), other domestic laws due to environmental impact, then after all that is completed, probably long process of a presidential directive required. Then, due to the environmental impact aspect, numerous international treaties and agreements and domestic legislation of other countries could be used by other parties to challenge the proposals. All in the Margaret Race paper. Plus need for open international public debate another conclusion of the ESF etc and they recommended to do that from an early stage. Robert Walker (talk) 08:54, 14 July 2013 (UTC)

RFC on whether there is sufficient coverage of back-contamination[edit]

There is disagreement between editors of this page as to whether there is sufficient focus on the risk of back-contamination by the introduction of possible Martian organisms to Earth. Outside comments are requested. Robert McClenon (talk) 23:51, 11 July 2013 (UTC)

  • The BC possibility is mentioned in an adequate way, imho. Mentioning an Andromeda-strain like risk sounds close to rediculous. The PPO takes all reasonable risks very serious (biohazard level 4). So early concerns like those of Carl Sagan are considered appropriately. A BC risk is purely hypothetical at the moment. An "early" MSR has very low chance to find living organisms at all. It cannot be ruled out, that in future a presently habitable environment might be detected. A MSR of such a location might allow a more specific treatment. But as no such environment could be found until now, such a discussion is baseless at the moment. It will be more likely, that a forward contaminated sample is returned.
Some more in-situ examination is planned, probably for a better preselection, but also useful to estimate the BC risk.
The precaution of the PPO shouldn't be used to construct an actual danger.
Lack of more data also doesn't indicate a danger. It just doesn't allow to reduce standard deviation of experimentally confirmed statistical results.
Reasonable precaution depends on the location where the sample is taken. At the surface the radiation level is roughly about half the level of outer space, and the Martian surface is extremely dry. This is generally assumed to reduce life in an exponential way. So if there ever had been life at the Martian surface it will have been reduced probably to to a very low level or to zero over millions of years. Even organic material is hard to detect, although it should be there from impacts. So a surface sample will be sterile most likely. Drilling into possible permafrost might look different, but in that case we also have a forward contamination risk. Mentioning (as is the case), that such a sample (and also the surface sample) is treated with biohazard level 4, and sterilized, if any doubt, should be appropriate.
A BC risk should be compared with other technical and natural risks to give the BC risk an appropriate weight. A risk below a millionth of other risks shouldn't be overemphasized. There is a long list of higher disruptive risks, e.g. "nearby" gamma-ray-burst, nearby supernova, huge Oort object impacts, severe technical and military accidents, wars, Earth-based pandemics, severe earth quakes, supervolcanoes, La Palma supertsunami, extreme climate change, ressource limitations,...
... in comparision to some probably sterile pieces of rocks from Mars treated with highest precaution. (talk) 02:48, 12 July 2013 (UTC)
Those are higher probability. Not necessarily more disruptive however in worst case scenarios. And it has never been any government or ethical person's policy that you should ignore lower probability or less damaging risks because there are other risks that are higher probability and more damaging. Robert Walker (talk) 11:28, 13 July 2013 (UTC)
  • I had been keeping my nose out of these discussions, but given RM's special plea through the official RFC channels, I thought I would leave a formal note. I agree with the IP editor above that the balance is about right. Everything I have read in the peer-reviewed literature and the Mars scientists I have talked to (I research Mars surface processes) indicates that the strong consensus is that Mars is very likely (though not certainly) dead at the surface today. This is exactly what the article currently argues. The final paragraph seems to offer balance on the minority viewpoint, though the impartiality could be improved by the removal of the leading "Nonetheless" (somewhat NPOV), perhaps replaced by "In contrast" (totally neutral). I can't access the ICAMSR site right now to check whether the outlandish claims about extinction of humans are current or indeed the view of the organisation rather than just its head; balance may actually be improved by deleting the phrase "or an Andromeda... Homo sapiens". But I wouldn't replace it with anything. As a key point which I have seen disputed elsewhere in the Mars portal (over and over again), I'd like to specifically emphasize that I consider the phrasing scientific consensus is that the risk of harmful back contamination is very likely to be zero to be appropriate. The subsequent descriptions of NASA's actions on contamination issues indicates totally adequately that the risk is tiny, but nonzero. DanHobley (talk) 06:39, 12 July 2013 (UTC)
Dan - the thing is - the actual NRC studies and ESF studies looked into it in detail and they found they culdn't rule out the risk of environmental disruption. They didn't find it outlandish. As you say very probably the first samples returned won't have any life on them. But that's not the same as saying they definitely won't have any life on them, especially as the aim will be to try to find samples that are likely to have life signatures. They also say clearly that you need something better than a biohazard 4 facility. I am simply reporting what the studies say. They don't seem to be widely known or understood. The current article may report the informal views of space scientists asked about it in conversation, but you can't report such views in wiipedia, it needs to report the views of notable sources.
As for the view the surface is almost certainly dead the recent habitability conference in February this year had many speakers who felt that life on the surface is actually rather likely. One of the went so far as to say she thought it was more likely we find biosignatures of present day rather than ancient life. In micro-habitats of deliquescing salts and similar habitats and similar to the micro-organisms you get in desert habitats on Earth that are able to survive on hardly any moisture, and also on Earth get life in deliquescing salts in deserts.
To put a section here that says that a biohazard 4 facility is sufficient, and that the official studies do not consider need to take precautions against environmental disruption, you need to find an up to date notable source that says that. What the current section said isn't in any of the sources I consulted. Basically what you are saying here counts as OR for wikipedia unless you can find a source for it. Robert Walker (talk) 22:28, 12 July 2013 (UTC)
My opinion stands, Robert. Note the section here does NOT SAY a biohazard 4 facility is sufficient - it says NASA is planning to build one. Nor does it say people don't think we should take precautions, or that anyone thinks the risk is zero. You are erecting straw men here. I do not need to take any action to defend these positions, as they aren't my positions. Nor are they the position currently in the article. The current article does not rely on any "informal views"; I said that, just now, after READING the article. I'm not happy about having words put in my mouth.
The section is adequate in balance. Frankly, RW, I think maybe you should take the break from editing these sections - and I would say, discussing them - that you've been talking about. You're reading harder line positions into the text than are actually there, and maybe you do need some distance to see this fresh. DanHobley (talk) 23:52, 12 July 2013 (UTC)
  • The balance seems right to me. I've yet to see a compelling explanation what is wrong with the present text. A slight nitpick I have is with the phrase: "the risk of harmful back contamination is very likely to be zero". I suggest that we say what we apparently mean, and seems to be semantically equivalent: that the risk is nearly zero. I appreciate that there are nuances of interpretation of sources, such as assessment of the likelihood of life on the surface of mars being nearly zero, and should there not be life on the surface then the risk is actually zero. But the statement as it now stands is potentially misleading, and needs to be clarified. Sławomir Biały (talk) 18:07, 12 July 2013 (UTC)
Would the formulation "The scientific consensus is that it is very likely that the risk of harmful back contamination is zero." come closer to clarification?
When we use the summarized version "the risk is nearly zero" the uncertainty of our knowledge of the risk may be added implicitely to the actual risk. To clarify this, it may be valid to write: "The exact risk of harmful back contamination is not known, but the scientific consensus is that it is very likely zero." (talk) 23:10, 12 July 2013 (UTC)
I think the statement "[the risk] is very likely zero" is at best a pleonasm and at worst is misleading. Risk and likelihood are both probabilities, and this is clearly a statement of conditional probability. But it's not at all clear what's being conditioned on. Sławomir Biały (talk) 07:50, 18 July 2013 (UTC)
The ESF report ( says: "These factors make it exceedingly unlikely that any microorganism capable of causing human disease could originate from Mars." (p.36), meaning they never expect it to occur. Or "the overall risk posed by returning a dangerous biological entity from Mars is quite low, not even considering the reduction factor of one in a million" (p.35). So I think, the formulation found by now ("the risk is extremely low") should be acceptable, meaning below 1 in a million; "very unlikely" means between 1 in 10 thousand and 1 in a million. In terms of probabilities "exceedingly unlikely" may mean below 1 in a million, but there wasn't given an unambiguous definition. I understand the "exceedingly unlikely" phrase as referring to the probability that hazardous life exists on Mars, but it might include sample return. The "quite low" version seems to clearly subsume the risk of a hazard to be returned from Mars. The point is, that they couldn't prove, that there is no risk at all. There is also no scientific evidence, that there is a risk. It is simply not known. (talk) 15:29, 18 July 2013 (UTC)
What I wanted to tell, it's not a conditional probability, but a kind of Estimator (Estimation_theory). The estimation of the risk varies between zero and "extremely low". (talk) 16:02, 18 July 2013 (UTC)
As the main one who objected to bias in this article, I agree with everything the last two commentators have said about the probability statement. I feel also after the recent edits, that the current article is now reasonably well balanced on contamination risks - though feel there is an imbalance still for Mars Project and wikipedia generally. Robert Walker (talk) 20:17, 18 July 2013 (UTC)
  • I'm the author of the BC section. Regarding the phrasing of scientific consensus is that the risk of harmful back contamination is very likely to be zero, it must be kept in mind that there are two very different probabilities going on here. First, there is a hypothesis that Mars life is harmful to Earth life. This hypothesis is either true or false. In frequentist terms, the probability is either 1 or 0. Then there is the subjective estimate of the odds that the hypothesis will turn out to be true. These odds are extremely low. Or in other words, it is very likely that the risk is zero. Sure, it can be misunderstood, but the alternative the risk is nearly zero could also be misunderstood as saying that the probability is of the frequentist variety, seemingly implying that the BC risk is on a par with, for example, the frequentist probability of Earth being impacted by a dinosaur-killer asteroid in a given year. The BC risk is decidedly not of the same variety. Warren Platts (talk) 21:24, 12 July 2013 (UTC)
The alternative is to use the words of the Office of Planetary Protection itself, the risk is thought to be very low but not demonstrably zero. That's all you need. "very likely to be zero" suggests that you think the probability is zero but haven't yet proved that it is, and expect to do so soon.Robert Walker (talk) 22:46, 12 July 2013 (UTC)
Yes, that's exactly the situation: the scientists believe that the probability is zero, but haven't proved it yet, but they expect to soon, when MSR itself is completed. That is one of the reasons for doing MSR in the first place: it is considered important to do an unmanned MSR before a crewed mission to Mars in order to definitively prove that the Martian environment isn't unduly hazardous to humans. Warren Platts (talk) 11:52, 13 July 2013 (UTC)
Why use words of your own rather than the words of the original source? Are you saying that the Office of Planetary Protection should rewrite their text on the matter? Highlighting the relevant words in bold. You can easily check to confirm I have not cited this out of context or misquoted the original text in any way.

"The potential for large-scale effects, either through pathogenesis or ecological disruption, is extremely small. Thus, the risks associated with inadvertent introduction of exogenous microbes into the terrestrial environment are judged to be low. However, any assessment of the potential for harmful effects involves many uncertainties, and the risk is not zero. ... The SSB task group strongly endorses NASA’s Exobiological Strategy for Mars Exploration (NASA, 1995). Such an exploration program, while likely to greatly enhance our understanding of Mars and its potential for harboring life, nonetheless is not likely to significantly reduce uncertainty as to whether any particular returned sample might include a viable exogenous biological entity-at least not to the extent that planetary protection measures could be relaxed."

See Mars Sample Return: Issues and Recommendations
I tried to explain this earlier: (Non-PPO-) scientists and the PPO look in a different way to the same data: Scientists (normally) have to show, that there is somthing with evidence. The PPO has to show, that there is nothing hazardous, with definitive evidence. So we are looking at two ends of the bell curve, if you like. Therefore the misunderstanding.
A second possible misundestanding: biosignature doesn't mean present life, necessarily. (talk) 23:58, 12 July 2013 (UTC)
Yes indeed, but when it comes to protecting the Earth, the PPO and the ESF are setting about it the right way. As Carl Sagan said:

There may be no micromartians. If they exist, perhaps we can eat a kilogram of them with no ill effects. But we are not sure, and the stakes are high. If we wish to return unsterilized Martian samples to Earth, we must have a containment procedure that is stupefyingly reliable. There are nations that develop and stockpile bacteriological weapons. They seem to have an occasional accident, but they have not yet, so far as I know, produced global pandemics. Perhaps Martian samples can be safely returned to Earth. But I would want to be very sure before considering a returned-sample mission.”

The PPO, quite rightly in my opinion, are aiming for that "very sure" before returning a sample. The article should reflect that. It is not right to just not mention the risk of environmental disruption as an officially recognised thing at all in the article and not explain what the PPO aims to protect against it or the need for international public debate.
It is actually this attitude of scientists in general, taking the view that it is unproved and probably non existent threat, that is what gives me personally most concern as it suggests that any precautions would not be taken seriously enough, so taht in case of the remote possibility that there is something to protect against, then the precautions would have no effect. Robert Walker (talk) 00:14, 13 July 2013 (UTC)
This also makes it totally clear that they are talking about large scale effects including ecological disruption, so those who say that it is an ICAMSR obsession are just plain wrong. Lots of mentions in the literature of it, numerous sources. I've given many quotes but it doesn't seem to help, still everyone in the discussion says it is an ICAMSR obsession when you just need to do a small amount of research into the topic and read a few of the citations to see that it is not.
Does no-one here actually read the citations on the topic? Robert Walker (talk) 22:46, 12 July 2013 (UTC)
"Risk is extremely small" seems a reasonable compromise phrasing to me, trading off WP's technical phrase for something more readable if a little less precise (tenor is the same though) - especially as it does appear verbatim in NASA's materials. I'm happy to accept the consensus position ranges from "extremely unlikely" to "near zero risk". Also, RW, please don't disparage other users' input like this. I've now read most of the insanely voluminous and repetitive material scattered across the various WPMars talk pages; so has RM, who I don't think even has any particular interest in Mars (? - sorry if you do, RM!). I for one have put in more time on this than I ever wanted and you should assume in good faith that others have too. Having outsiders come in is in the nature of an RFC. We're all trying to help here. DanHobley (talk) 23:12, 12 July 2013 (UTC)
Dan, I didn't mean the talk pages or what I say, what does that count? I meant the official studies. Such as for instance the Mars Sample Return: Issues and Recommendations quoted above. I don't see how anyone can read that including the quote I just gave, and then conclude that the risk of environmental disruption is an ICAMSR obsession. The ESF report even more so, and the NRC one.
Not saying at all that they think it is a likely outcome or the most likely, of course most likely that the sample will be harmless. But just that they recognize it as something you need to take precautions against. And that they also say clearly that you need to have international public debate, and the Margaret Race paper says that even more clearly. Have you read the ESF study or the OPP page? If you have do you still think that the risk of environmental disruption is a purely ICAMSR concern? I don't see how you can, but if you do, do say more, and any way that you think my understanding of the quote above is incorrect.
I'm not trying to promote a hard line ICAMSR approach. Just to acknowledge that the literature discusses the risk of Environmental disruption, takes it seriously, recommends international debate, and talks about the precautions needed against it. As one of many possibilities, probably least likely but the one most severe in its possible outcome. Robert Walker (talk) 00:01, 13 July 2013 (UTC)
Sorry if it is disparaging. I just don't understand how any of you could read the citations and the quotes and then come to the conclusion that only the ICAMSR think it is necessary to take precautions against environmental disruption. As a result, I can only assume you haven't read the citations. Am happy to be corrected in that, if you can explain to me how the citations are to be understood as not actually talking about a risk of environmental disruption and need to avert it. Robert Walker (talk) 00:04, 13 July 2013 (UTC)
I do of course accept the outcome of this RfC whatever it is, and it is due process for wikipedia. I am just putting points of information that I thought are relevant and not yet considered in the debate, mainly, what the citations say if you read the sources. If everyone else here is in agreement with WP, I just have to go away as Dan already suggested. I normally edit in many topic areas but find it sad that this notable topic has been excised from wikipedia, as I see it, but if that is the community decision, there is nothing I can do about it. Robert Walker (talk) 00:29, 13 July 2013 (UTC)
I have already started to share the content I wrote for wikipedia, elsewhere, under CC By SA, and will continue to do so. It is of course released under the same CC By SA license as required, so it can be used back here in the future if the climate of opinion changes.Robert Walker (talk) 00:42, 13 July 2013 (UTC)
I'm going to say this one more time. You say above: "I just don't understand how any of you could read the citations and the quotes and then come to the conclusion that only the ICAMSR think it is necessary to take precautions against environmental disruption." I will write this once more, and apologies if bolding it seems rude, but: The article explicitly recognises that NASA takes precautions against environmental disruption. Virtually nobody thinks they are wrong to do so. This is why the article is already balanced. Your issue appears to be with the levels of protection, but you repeatedly project the strawman "no precautions" position onto anyone you reply to. Looking back at your reverted edits, your prose has repeatedly done the same. Don't please. I for one don't appreciate you putting (wrong) words in my mouth. DanHobley (talk) 01:37, 13 July 2013 (UTC)
I agree with DanHobley that Robert Walker is mistaken in arguing that no one else but the ICAMSR is arguing that precautions are not needed. I think that either the current section is all right, or that minor expansion is needed, but no major expansion. The present section does seem balanced, in my opinion, neither too positive nor too negative. Maybe I have missed something, but I think that RW is honestly trying to push a non-neutral point of view. Robert McClenon (talk) 01:49, 13 July 2013 (UTC)
Robert, if I am mistaken, how do you understand this? Do you think they are not actually talking about environmental disruption, as normally understood, but mean something else by the words? If so how is it to be understood? Everyone here seems to read this and not see it the way I do, but I can't understand how you can read it and not interpret it as I do.

"The potential for large-scale effects, either through pathogenesis or ecological disruption, is extremely small. Thus, the risks associated with inadvertent introduction of exogenous microbes into the terrestrial environment are judged to be low. However, any assessment of the potential for harmful effects involves many uncertainties, and the risk is not zero

That's the Office of Planetary Protection says that. They go on to say that precautions are needed. Also it is not just a one off remark. It is the end point of a long series of discussions spanning the NRC and the ESF reports that go into a lot of detail to come to this conclusion, over several chapters, far too much detail to go into here.
However, if you all read that and see no contradiction between it and the current section in this article, well that is what the RfC is about, I have to accept that decision. Robert Walker (talk) 02:08, 13 July 2013 (UTC)
I would prefer something along the lines of's suggested phraseology, such as The scientific consensus is that it is very likely that the risk of large-scale effects, either through pathogenesis or ecological disruption, is zero. However, per Dan Hobley's suggestion to compromise with Robert Walker and for the sake of bringing this conversation to a close, I rewrote the sentence in question to: "The scientific consensus is that the potential for large-scale effects, either through pathogenesis or ecological disruption, is extremely small". Any objections? Warren Platts (talk) 12:23, 13 July 2013 (UTC)
Warren that's a major improvement.
1. I would of course add "but not zero" - "extremely small but not zero" as that's what the studies say. But it is better to leave out the word zero than to say "likely to be zero" IMHO.
2. I still have issues with the rest of the article. Why only the mention of domestic legal hurdles. Also why omission of the quarantine and other domestic issues as significant as the ones you include? Either don't mention the legal situation at all or mention the international as well as the domestic legal hurdles.
A simpler "There are many domestic and international legal processes to be completed, and need for public debate both domestic and international" if you want something really short not going into detail. Either that or not go into it at all. What you wrote would not be an accurate summary of the main legal issues for someone interested to know what the exact legal situation is.
3. In the last sentence it's not right to say that in contrast the ICAMSR argues that it could result in potential widespread ecological disruption. That is not their argument, it is Carl Sagan's argument. Historically it long predates the ICAMSR.
If you want to attribute it to someone, you should say that "Carl Sagan argued that MSR back contamination could, with very low probability, lead to widespread ecological disruption." I think a quote from him is better than a bare statement like that however, as he expresses himself so well. Especially since he also so clearly balances the low probability with the severity of the risk, which is something that is really really hard to do in print, and hard to paraphrase. But if you feel quotes from him take too much space in the article, then at any rate should be attributed to him, and make sure to have the low probability given as much prominence as the severity.
I think the ICAMSR are best presented as an advocacy group who oppose return of a MSR to Earth at this stage, motivated by Carl Sagan's concerns. While the official POV, also motivated by his concerns, is that it is safe to return it provided that proper precautions are taken.
4. Also if you mention the ICAMSR you should also mention Zubrin and contrast the ICAMSR with Zubrin with the official view in the middle. It's not right to mention just the one extremist view and not the other opposite extremist view IMHO.
5. And I still have issues with the suggestion that the MSRRF is a biohazard 4 because without extra qualification it is easy for the reader to assume that Biohazard 4 is sufficient. If you don't want to go into the technical details, just leave out the 4 and say
"To receive the returned samples, NASA has proposed to build a new type of Biosafety containment facility" - I suggest adding some phrase or other to show that it is a new type of facility. At least alerts the user that it is not a normal Biohazard facility.
6. Is progress though!
1. The "not zero" is redundant. We should try to keep this section as WP:CONCISE as is reasonable.
2. There are no international legal hurdles. There is no international treaty that calls for an international public debate. The United States does not require permission from other states parties to conduct MSR: the only requirement is to inform the Secretary General of the UN that they're sending a mission to Mars that's going to retrieve some samples.
Have you read Margaret Race's article? She is a senior research scientist for the SETI institutes and one of the most significant writers on these topics, it is her paper that says that international measures are needed. It's because of the risk of back contamination leading to environmental disruption that they are needed. She is mainstream, not fringe. Robert Walker (talk) 20:00, 13 July 2013 (UTC)
Yes of course I have read the article. And nowhere does she say anything at all like "international measures" are "needed". That is WP:OR on your part. Warren Platts (talk) 20:46, 13 July 2013 (UTC)

International implications of sample return. In addition to the domestic legal concerns described above, numerous treaties, conventions and international agreements could apply to sample return activities and potential contamination concerns, especially those related to environmental protection or health (e.g., those related to protection of the living resources of the seas, long range transboundary air pollution, world health, etc.). Domestic laws of other nations could be invoked by individuals or groups who argue that back contamination may cause measurable damages or losses, for example from accidents on land or sea

And you still say you read the article? And that there is no mention in it of international measures? Robert Walker (talk) 21:24, 13 July 2013 (UTC)
The question is: Did you read the article? Where does she mention any legal requirements for international debates? Where does she say international "measures" are "needed"? She merely states that, for example the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea might somehow have implications for MSR, or that a guy might try to sue NASA in a Luxembourg parish court, but exactly how and on what grounds, she does not say. Mere hypotheticals IOW. Nothing concrete enough to be worth reporting on IMO. Warren Platts (talk) 21:45, 13 July 2013 (UTC)
Robert, please drop the claims that others aren't informed on the issues. You can argue by invoking specific parts of your sources (as you have here), but you do make these claims of ignorance repeatedly, and it does veer close to insult. Just FYI. Also, once again here you're straw-manning (not a word, but you get it) someone's point. WP has argued the reference doesn't talk about what's needed; you reply by quoting a section on the current legal position. That said, I've added a sentence to the article that addresses this legal issue, attempting to balance both your concerns. Note this is specifically about the current legal situation. This is quite deliberate. By including people's opinions on the future, you automatically run risks of being called out for POV. By sticking with what's currently the case, everything stays rock solid. DanHobley (talk) 21:44, 13 July 2013 (UTC)
That's a good sentence Dan. In fact, it could be strengthened, so I went back in and added that according to Article 7 of the OST, the releasing nation would be liable for damages. Let it not be said that Warren Platts is incapable of compromise when it comes to Robert Walker. Warren Platts (talk) 22:05, 13 July 2013 (UTC)
3. There is a separate article on ICAMSR My suggestion would be to expand that article with Sagan quotes if you think it's important.
Carl Sagan inspired many people. He inspired the official policies too. Robert Walker (talk) 20:00, 13 July 2013 (UTC)
4. Zubrin, the Chairman of the Mars Society, is part of the mainstream. There is nothing in his analysis that in inconsistent with the official verbiage. He has not publicly come out against the standard planetary protection measures: his beef is with ICAMSR itself. Moreover, despite the mention of ecological disruption in the "official" tomes, the fact remains that they are hypothetical possibilities based more on science fiction than actual science. Practically all scientific evidence so far indicates that even if Martian life exists, it will be harmless. Yes, it is the case that humans have not evolved with Martian life, but that "argument" ignores the fact that our immune systems are designed by natural selection to able to respond to practically any novel biological threat.
I am talking about Zubrin's views on back contamination. Those are not mainstream. However mainstream he may be in other ways, in this respect he is extreme and no-one else in the published literature agrees with his views on the matter. From Zubrin himself I have found only a transcript of an interview. I believe there is also a paper but haven't been able to find it. He is not a particularly notable figure in this area in the literature, and in no way is he an authority on the subject.
I mean no personal disrespect to him, but in this particular area he is no authority and is noted for his eccentric views on back contamination, just as the ICAMSR are.
The details about whether or not it is a matter of concern are gone over thoroughly in the NRC and ESF reports and they came to a different conclusion from you. And to call the official reports verbiage shows your own bias perhaps? Robert Walker (talk) 20:00, 13 July 2013 (UTC)
Zubrin says there is no scientific basis to expect large-scale ecological disruption. This in no way contradicts the official reports. Like I said, that transcript and article you keep talking about were a specific take-down of ICAMSR propaganda. You can read DiGregorio's full rebuttal here. Warren Platts (talk) 20:46, 13 July 2013 (UTC)
5. As if there's such a thing as a Biosafety Level 5 laboratory?? You are making a mountain out of a molehill. Positive and negative air flows are already integrated in existing facilities. The proposed double wall Biosafety cabinet is overkill IMHO, but it is not a difficult engineering challenge. There are a number of commercial companies that already build custom-made biosafety cabinets.
Whether it is easy or difficult, needs to be said. You forget also about the need to contain ultramicrobacteria and smaller. I don't think anyone suggests it is a difficult engineering challenge, particularly, more, that it is a novel challenge, no-one has done it before. Robert Walker (talk) 20:00, 13 July 2013 (UTC)
Um, actually, you have suggested it is a particularly difficult challenge that therefore adds more risk to the project. Cf. your old sandbox article.Warren Platts (talk) 20:46, 13 July 2013 (UTC)
6. Right. So now we can start working on the other aspects of this article that need improvement. Like the budget cuts, the schedule, the proposal to use SLS/Orion, etc., etc. [Sigh.] Warren Platts (talk) 17:18, 13 July 2013 (UTC)
  • Comment I have just written about this to Project Biology talk page, you need to scroll to the end of the section. (note, Back-contamination was classified under Project Biology, - though Interplanetary Contamination currently is not).
I think it is fair to conclude that
1. On this page, the discussion of any international legal issues or need for international debate is no longer permitted on wikipedia.User:Robertinventor/Mars_Sample_Return_Legal_Issues_and_International_Public_Debate
2. Pretty much this entire page is not permitted: User:Robertinventor/Mars_Sample_Receiving_Facility_and_sample_containment. Mentions of the Mars receiving facility can say no more than that NASA plan to build a biohazard 4 laboratory to receive the materials.
3. It is not permitted to mention that the proposed facility would be required to be far more than biohazard 4, as described on that page, or to mention that it has as one of its design goals the aim to prevent biological contamination that could in the worst (unlikely) case cause environmental disruption of the Earth.
Which is why I can no longer contribute to this particular topic on wikipedia articles, and have started to share my content elsewhere.
It is not an issue of POV bias because I offered to write the Back contamination article with the aid of a collaborator with opposite bias to me, but this offer was not accepted. Robert Walker (talk) 11:28, 13 July 2013 (UTC)
  • Comment WP has just removed the POV-section tags from the article. Can I respectfully suggest that he is not the best person to close this RfC? And that if it is still open the tags should remain until it is closed? Robert Walker (talk) 15:33, 13 July 2013 (UTC)
The tags are a separate issue. Warren Platts (talk) 15:52, 13 July 2013 (UTC)
  • "Round trip" contamination seems to be relevant for the 2020 mission in preparation of a potential MSR: "Round-trip planetary protection refers to protection of the contents of the cache from terrestrial contamination. Since the Mars 2020 mission concept is to assemble a cache of samples with the intent that it would be returned by a potential future return mission, the samples and the associated hardware must be kept free of “round-trip” Earth organisms that could interfere with biohazard and life-detection testing of martian samples upon return to Earth.", see "Report of the Mars 2020 Science Definition Team" (SDT-Report Finalv6.pdf), p. 57, accessible via . (talk) 18:14, 13 July 2013 (UTC)
Good point, anonymous IP editor. Forward contamination is at least as notable as back within the purview of this article. And as has been fairly extensively discussed elsewhere, the processes and rationales are different. Would support a short section on this. We could either rename the current final section and put it there, or add a small additional section. (NB- back contamination coverage is adequate still.) DanHobley (talk) 18:51, 13 July 2013 (UTC)
Except for the fact that there are no plans for the 2020 mission in preparation of a potential MSR: the budget was cut and MSR cancelled. Only concrete plan I am aware of is to send a clone of MSL to Mars. It will not be a sample catcher AFAIK. Warren Platts (talk) 20:28, 13 July 2013 (UTC)
I *think* there are actually plans for the MSL clone to gather samples for return. I'll check. (My understanding from sitting in various NASA community planning sessions at conferences is that what NASA say they want, what they've actually got support or ability to do, and what the various subcommittees are actually planning are all surprisingly divergent!) Agree the 2020 plan has been canned though, so shouldn't be here specifically, except perhaps mentioned in passing. I more meant this in the general sense - it would be relevant to have some limited discussion of forward contamination prevention measures for a putative return mission, if such relevant references can be found. EDIT: That teaches me to write before checking refs. So, as of ~a week ago, the Mars 2020 mission is STILL ON - at least, no-one has told the Definition Team that it isn't yet. See [2]. This is the MSL clone mission, and the current designs are merging this mission with the CMAX plans apparently... This rover is going to be doing sample collection ready for return (check that diagram in the link). So this stuff is directly relevant here! I stand by my claim above that NASA left hand has no idea what its right is doing, though. Also, I think a putative forward contamination section should remain general, though cite specifics, as above. DanHobley (talk) 21:17, 13 July 2013 (UTC)
Hello, I tidied it up a bit (the paragraph). Forward contamination is just as relevant as back contamination as someone suggested, but how about calling it all "Containment measures," or "Sterile containment"? Is there any such thing as back-contamination? Hardly. Not yet anyways, is there? It's just a speculation, however risky it is, the actual practice is containing, or sterile sealing, or something like those. Anyways, I tried to shorten the sentences a bit. My 2 bits is, looks okay. Containment theory? Too much. Containment practice, specifically pertinent to this particular mission? That would be totally relevant, but trying to put a series of math formulae about the butterfly effect on the butterfly article might be too much. Totally impartial. All content should reflect the spirit of the guidelines HERE, on THIS website which are written by and for us all and cover EVERYYYYTHing. ~ R.T.G 04:10, 15 July 2013 (UTC)
HI RTG. Good to have a fresh voice here. I like your copyedits; thank you in particular for actually getting stuck in and making some changes. However, I did revert your section rename (sorry). I feel that while a rename is probably justified, many of the back containment issues don't focus exclusively on pathogens per se; the main aim is to prevent release of any organisms at all, even if they would be totally harmless. Perhaps this confusion is telling us the text isn't totally clear on this? At any rate, if any other phrasing occurs to you, please do have at it. DanHobley (talk) 05:18, 15 July 2013 (UTC)
On round trip contamination, Craig Venter, and separately, another team sponsored by NASA are working on miniaturized DNA sequencers to send to Mars. Its called SETG. Their main motivation is to prevent round trip contamination. This quote is from the news story Genome Hunters Go After Martian DNA - J. Craig Venter may have just started a race to discover alien life on the Red Planet. in

“The reason to take a device all the way to Mars and not bring back the sample is because of contamination. No one would believe you,” says Tessi Kanavarioti, a chemist who carried out early theoretical work on Martian biology and was involved in studying rocks brought back from the moon in the 1970s. Sequencing machines are so sensitive that if a single Earth germ landed on the sample returned from Mars, it might ruin the experiment."

The benefits for preventing back contamination are also mentioned but not the primary motivation for their work. There are many exobiologists who think that study of the samples in situ on Mars is better than return to Earth, for another reason, that samples with biosignatures are likely to be rare, and the signatures also likely to be sparse and hard to detect, and if you return the samples to Earth with only a coarse detection attempt on Mars and no positive detection of life, it is reasonably likely, in their view, that you would return biologically inconclusive or uninteresting material. Eight of them wrote a white paper for the Decadal review stating this, urging in situ observation instead of sample return. Their paper was not mentioned in the summing up of the decadal review that I've seen which just talks about the overwhelming support of the community for a MSR, and doesn't seem to have had much impact. Robert Walker (talk) 08:28, 15 July 2013 (UTC)
Thanks for the praise. Regarding the title though, how about "Biocontainment"? I believe that is actually the standard laboratory terminology (Biocontainment). Pathogen containment is more of a phrase that I just pulled out of my head. Forward contamination is however (or was) one of NASAs primary concerns so as suggested earlier, it does make sense to acknowledge that, if just to make a smooth way for the fresh learner. Well, I know my writing feels complex to understand, but my vote would be not to over-complicate with a lecture on biocontainment theory, but not to leave out anything directly specific to this mission either, no matter how complicated that makes it. I hope that's an impartial viewpoint for you, ~ R.T.G 10:52, 15 July 2013 (UTC)

If human beings travel to a place and items they have been in contact with come in contact with the foreign atmosphere, contamination either way is inevitable. ~ R.T.G 14:07, 6 August 2013 (UTC)

At the moment I feel that the section is good as it is. PantherLeapord|My talk page|My CSD log 12:06, 7 August 2013 (UTC)

Air filters[edit]

I removed the sentence about air filters being a particular engineering challenge. It is not. Also, I'm going to remove for now the preceding sentence: The design of the MSRRF differs from a conventional biohazard lab as it needs not only to keep putative Mars organisms with unknown properties in, but also to keep terrestrial organisms out. As if modern BSL4 labs are not designed to keep terrestrial organisms out. That is simply not true. Do CDL researchers want their precious Marburg cultures contaminated with E. coli? I don't think so, but perhaps someone can dredge up a source on that... Also, let's please try to keep the overall size of this section within reason. It is now the visibly largest section on MSR. Why is that? Is it because BC is the most important aspect of MSR? If so, well then perhaps MSR shouldn't be done, because it might cause the end of the world? That perception is what must be avoided. cf. WP:WEIGHTWarren Platts (talk) 12:43, 14 July 2013 (UTC)

WP of course they exist. It is one thing to have a membrane to filter them out, another thing to contain a sample that you need to handle and measure and do many different things with to analyse it, and make sure that it is impossible for a single 0.01 micron particle to escape confinement during the entire process.
The ESF thought it enough of a design challenge so they put in provisions for the requirement to be lifted if it turned out to be too costly to design it that way, but only under review by a panel of experts who agreed that lifting the requirement is the only practical way ahead. The 0.05 micron limit they said could not be lifted under any circumstances - that's half the size of the smallest known ultramicrobacteria. They also said these size limits need to be continually reviewed as future scientific advances might lead to discovery of smaller micro-organisms than those known now (the study was done at a time when recent discoveries had dramatically reduced the smallest size). Robert Walker (talk) 16:29, 14 July 2013 (UTC)
Per your concerns above WP, I'm going to restore the sentence on 2 way seals on the MSRRF, but change the wording so it doesn't imply BH4 labs don't seek to keep out terrestrial organisms. I think it adds legitimate & NPOV understanding to the section. I don't share your concerns that this section as it currently is/was last night is particularly outsize, or that it (yet) implying bias by its weight. I don't feel super strongly about the filters, though that ESF report does explicitly state there are issues (perhaps they are cost, not engineering, issues) with the ultrafine filters. I'm not sure your link to such a filter demonstrates that this is nonproblematic (those aren't air filters, they're compressed gas filters). DanHobley (talk) 17:09, 14 July 2013 (UTC)
Not too bad now. I'd mention the size limits and indeed give the figures in microns for specialists reading this which it might mean something to. But it's not me editing this, so it is for you to decide. With the clean room, the thing is they have to keep out all terrestrial DNA totally, or they would confuse the results. That's a pretty hard thing to do, when you are also handling the specimens and analysing them. If all was required was to contain the sample, would be easy enough, just leave it in its container and surround it with extra layers and seals to prevent anything escaping. It's the need to do scientific experiments to analyse what is there, and to remove small samples and move them to other locations for analysis that's the bug bear of the facility and the reason for all the complexity and expense. And when you are doing that, taking fragments from the sample, moving it about, examining it with different apparatus - how to do all that without letting any terrestrial DNA or micro-organisms contaminate the sample, and at the same time, without letting any fragment of the material as small as a hundredth of a micron escape from containment - that's where it gets tricky, and expensive and unusually complex. One of the proposals was to have a fully robotic facility operated externally by humans who never go near the sample. And the whole thing within double wall positive + negative air pressure containment to make sure no terrestrial DNA can get in and no Martian micro-organisms get out.
I think even so extra precautions would also be needed to prevent contamination by terrestrial DNA as there would surely be some Earth DNA left inside the fully robotic handling section, somewhere I came across a highly detailed multiple pages design study for a MSR facility, which goes into this level of detail, but can't find it right now, and forget what it said in detail. Robert Walker (talk) 09:23, 15 July 2013 (UTC)

And now for more fun[edit]

As if we haven't wasted enough time, the two Roberts are now conspiring to ban myself and User:BatteryIncluded here and here]. This is harassment, pure and simple. Unbelievable... Warren Platts (talk) 13:07, 14 July 2013 (UTC)

Yes, please include violations by BI as well, including insults. Add everything. Robert McClenon (talk) 22:16, 13 July 2013 (UTC)

All previous efforts to resolve content issues have been frustrated by personal attacks. The user of WP:Arbitration is not harassment. It is the last step in dispute resolution. If you would prefer to address the content issues via the Request for Comments process, then please indicate that in your response to the following:

Legal process of approval of a MSR[edit]

The back contamination section is now much improved, but the legal section still needs work. It suggests that it is a relatively straight forward matter, when it would be one of the most complex missions legally that there have been. I think it might possibly be the most complex one legally since Apollo.

As I understand it from Margaret Race's article these are laws that would delay or prevent the mission from happening at all.

For instance, without quarantine regulation sorted out for the returned samples, it couldn't go ahead. With Apollo 11 they got around the need for public debate for the quarantine regulation by releasing the details of the arrangements on the day of the launch so there was no time for any protests or debate. That wouldn't be permitted today.

You can read the source material, seems pretty clear to me, but see what you think.

M. S. Race Planetary Protection, Legal Ambiguity, and the Decision Making Process for Mars Sample Return Adv. Space Res. vol 18 no 1/2 pp (1/2)345-(1/2)350 1996

Details - I have marked with asterisks the ones I think are most important and should be mentioned, however briefly, if you mention the legal process

  • 1*. The lunar quarantine laws were rescinded, Bew ones would be needed for a MSR. It wouldn't be as easy as it was in Apollo days to get them approved
  • 2. presidential directive NSC-25 requires a review of large scale alleged effects on the environment and is carried out subsequent to the other domestic reviews and through a long process, leads eventually to presidential approval of the launch. Margaret Race in her paper thought it would probably apply.
  • 3*. recommendation of international public debate in the ESF report - I think that is important and worth mentioning even in a short summary if just as a single phrase.
  • 4*. Something or other to summarize this section in Margaret Race's paper, which though short covers a lot of ground:

International implications of sample return. In addition to the domestic legal concerns described above, numerous treaties, conventions and international agreements could apply to sample return activities and potential contamination concerns, especially those related to environmental protection or health (e.g., those related to protection of the living resources of the seas, long range transboundary air pollution, world health, etc.). Domestic laws of other nations could be invoked by individuals or groups who argue that back contamination may cause measurable damages or losses, for example from accidents on land or sea

  • 5* Need for open international public debate.

On 5, if there is no prior open international debate, it might easily be that when the time comes there is more public opposition than expected, and that it is impossible to pass the necessary laws or get approval from other nations.

The ESF review also came to this same conclusion of the need for full and open international public debate.

Considering the global nature of the issue, consequences resulting from an unintended release

could be borne by a larger set of countries than those involved in the programme. It is recommended that mechanisms dedicated to ethical and social issues of the risks and benefits raised by an MSR are set up at the international level and are open to representatives of all countries.

I.e. what is required is more than just releasing all details of plans so anyone can see them, which of course they would do nowadays, but actually actively engaging in debate with other nations and developing fora and other ways for the debate to continue to get all views on the proposal.

Others have also argued that it is necessary to do this for ethical reasons, and to engage debate encouraging participation of those of all ethical and religious backgrounds.

No need to go into all that detail in a short section.

Perhaps something like "Numerous international treaties, conventions and agreements could be a basis for other nations to raise legitimate concerns about a MSR proposal. The ESF and others have stated the need for mechanisms to encourage full open debate at an international level.", or some such, with citation of Margaret Race's article and the ESF report.

Plus it should at least mention the quarantine issue and something about other domestic laws and possibly presidential directive.

On the legal liabaility, not saying it has to be mentioned, but just to say that Legal liability unlimited in time and amount if release happens during the actual return to Earth is unusual, and might be thought worth a mention.

Most important though I think is to give some hint of the legal complexity of a MSR, if you mention the legal process at all.

I think the legal process does need to be mentioned myself. I might go as far as to have a separate short one paragraph or so section, because it is significantly more complex legally than any other space mission in recent times, as far as I know. Robert Walker (talk) 09:10, 15 July 2013 (UTC)

I think, BC is considered (more than) sufficiently now. Round trip contamination is much more important from a science perspective, and it is also important for avoidance of false positive BC detection. MSR is primarily a scientific topic, so to balance the article appropriately, those other topics is to be given more weight. Forward contamination will be less important, whenever the sample is taken from an environment assessed as non-habitable, and avoiding FC is a consequence of avoiding round trip contamination. At the moment the article looks like scientific and technical progress would be marginal, and BC would be most important. But that's far from the motivation for a MSR.
The main objective for a MSR is the possibility for returning definitive evidence for scientific findings, that can be verified by a larger community of scientists, and potentially by still to develop analytical methods. Additionally, and may be more important, analysis can be done with intruments which cannot be transported to Mars. Especially the detection of billion year old biosignatures is very difficult, and any expectable result obtained in situ will be questioned.
It's insufficient to focus extremely selective just on the BC topic. The BC topic, including legal aspects, is mostly motivated by public concern, not very much by scientific evidence. So the PPO's POV will be much more precautious that the mainstream science POV. Scientists will get access to the sample after the PPO will have checked it as non-hazardous.
Mars samples are neither hungry nor need they to go to toilette nor feel they sick. So it is not like a manned mission like Apollo.
But it's important for the preparation of a manned mission.
That NASA operates more publicly in recent times is not specific to a MSR. (talk) 16:13, 15 July 2013 (UTC)
I'm just saying the legal part of the section is inaccurate. Not voicing any opinion about how much coverage it should have. Focuses on two parts of the legal process that are straightforward, and omits all the things that are more complex and likely to hold it up for years and could in face of opposition e.g. by other nations, prevent it altogether.
Quarantine laws required for the samples themselves as well and needs to be clarified also needs to clarify what happens if humans are accidentally exposed should they be quarantined. I think that is what the author meant there by qs about personnel. And her point is that it is not just a matter of clarification under existing laws. New legislation is needed, as there are no applicable laws in place since the Apollo legislation was rescinded.
That NASA is more open agreed. The laws still need to be changed though, and that openness means the process will take longer because they can't rush things through if there is any public opposition. Surely they will encourage international debate, yet, this is worth saying in the article that it is needed, because that too is unusual, as most missions don't require much by way of international debate about whether the mission can go ahead or not. So if reader hasn't thought about this before, they probably won't realise that this is a mission that could only go ahead after extensive open international debate. Robert Walker (talk) 18:49, 15 July 2013 (UTC)
I don't see it as a big deal if no-one here wants to do anything about it. Just thought it is worth a mention that there is this one remaining inaccuracy in my view, of focusing on less important aspects of the legal / public debate and ignoring the most important aspects. The rest is okay, hugely better than it was a couple of days ago! It is the sort of thing I would normally just fix with a bold edit, but in the circumstances feel best not to attempt to edit it myself here, as I'm sure anyone else who has been following this would understand. Robert Walker (talk) 19:03, 15 July 2013 (UTC)
The Rice paper is referenced, where potential international legislation is mentioned. That should be sufficient for readers who are interested in more details. The BC section now roughly summarizes legal issues. More detail/accuracy at that point may be perceived as close to out of topic, with the risk that the now probably accepted compromise will be questioned again. So thanks for not further expanding that detail! That's much appreciated. (talk) 22:11, 15 July 2013 (UTC)
As I said, I'm not concerned about length, but accuracy. If there is too much detail, why not just say something like this:
"Various legal procedures need to be gone through that are special to a Mars sample return mission because of the back contamination risk. These procedures also require full and open international debate. The nation responsible for the sample return would also have legal liability for consequences."
That would replace the entire legal section, and add refs to the Race article and the ESF report for those who want to find out more.
It is like - why focus on two comparatively minor aspects of the legal process required? For most missions those would be a major stage of the legal process I gather, but for BC they are a comparatively minor stage of the whole process.
I am not advocating a POV or trying to get a compromise POV slant, that has never been my aim in my edits. My aim is just to have the section accurate and the studies and papers referenced accurately presented in wikipedia - for all the studies and all the POVs summarized here. Robert Walker (talk) 22:22, 15 July 2013 (UTC)
Totally not a biggy. If the consensus is to leave it as is, I won't object. These sorts of things tend to get sorted out eventually anyway if you wait long enough sooner or later someone may turn up here who is an expert on the legal situation, to get those sentences properly into shape. Rereading it right now for my science20 article on the topic, realised that the EIS part of the process is actually quite major multi-year process, so in terms of the total time it might be justly presented as amajor part of the process if not the only major item to be dealt with. Robert Walker (talk) 00:59, 16 July 2013 (UTC)
I tend to leave the BC section as it is at the moment. May be things become clearer within the next months and years, if/when ESF recommendations are implemented. The MSR topic is in rapid change. (talk) 13:43, 16 July 2013 (UTC)
Okay, won't object to that. Robert Walker (talk) 20:19, 18 July 2013 (UTC)