How to Protect Mars Samples on Earth

A returning spacecraft may someday hurtle through Earth’s atmosphere bearing evidence of life from Mars. But scientists won’t casually crack open the precious payload in any old laboratory. They will need a specially-designed building that not only protects the Martian samples from terrestrial contamination, but also prevents any Martian material or organisms from escaping into Earth’s biosphere.
Such a Mars sample return mission could signal a huge scientific coup for understanding the red planet’s ability to harbor life, and so NASA launched the initial phases of a sample return mission in the late 1990s. Programmatic considerations, including technical and budgetary concerns, killed the mission planning early on, but the U.S. space agency continued to study what type of sample return facility (SRF) might become necessary for such a mission.
Now NASA’s Mars team has released the results of that study. Three architectural firms drew up plans for how humans and robots could handle extraterrestrial samples within special facilities.