A Fort Knox-style space lab is being built to securely house rocks brought to Earth from Mars amid fears they could trigger an alien pandemic that wipes out mankind.
Boffins fear samples collected from the surface of the Red Planet by NASA's Perseverance rover could harbour ET microbes deadly to humans and capable of triggering an untreatable global health crisis.
Space agency chiefs plan to blast the specimens back to Earth so scientists can examine them for signs of extraterrestrial life.
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NASA officials admit the mission will be the most complex robotic space flight campaign 'ever attempted'.
Some experts are terrified it could pose a threat to life on Earth should the rocks contain deadly microbes that escape.
In a bid to quash concerns the US space agency has announced it will create a specially-designed facility for safely housing the specimens.
The Mars Sample Receiving Project office will be built at the Johnson Space Center (corr) in Houston, Texas, which hosts the largest collection of space material on the planet including from the Apollo missions to the Moon.
Originally it was planned the Martian specimens would be housed at a US Air Force testing range in the remote state of Utah.
But that has been scrapped since NASA held a series of meetings to obtain public feedback over the idea.
The samples – which have been collected from an ancient Martian river delta over two years by the unmanned rover and placed in 42 metal tubes – are set to be blasted back to Earth in 900F heat-sealed containers aboard a European Space Agency craft in 2033.
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After hearing experts' fears NASA has decided it will safeguard the specimens itself.
They could finally prove the existence of alien life.
Peter Doran, a geologist at Louisiana State University, US, who studies life in extreme environments, has warned the Earth needs to adopt a safety-first approach to the material.
"Maybe this is the most important environmental assessment that humans have ever done,'' he told US National Public Radio.
"I think that it's a very low probability that there's anything living at the surface of Mars. But there is a possibility.
"Until recently there hasn't been a lot of focus on the details of the sample return facility and all that because we didn't think it was going to happen.''
While the surface of Mars is dry, extremely cold and blasted with harsh ultraviolet radiation he said it was still possible microbes could eke out an existence in shielded cavities and holes or under the dust.
"The possibility is not zero,'' he said.
"We definitely have to take this stance of protecting Earth, at least in the early missions, until we know what's there.''
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Science writer Barry DiGregorio, of the International Committee Against Mars Sample Return which opposes plans to bring Martian rocks directly to Earth, said other returning space missions had broken up on impact.
"You could imagine what would happen if you have pathogenic organisms from another planet and you had that sort of event take place,'' he said.
Planetary protection expert Margaret Race, who took part in a study 30 years ago that found people were more worried about nuclear weapons, food hygiene and ozone depletion than the bio threat of Martian samples, said perceptions may have changed since Covid-19.
"What we're talking about is bringing it down in Utah in a great big desert and then you pick it up and you bring it to someplace else, a lab,'' said Race.
"I can expect there will be lots of questions.''
But NASA planetary protection expert Brian Clement said most scientific experts all agreed that the potential hazard is very 'very low'.
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"Anything that has contacted Mars directly will be contained or sterilised before it is returned,'' he said.
Planetary scientist Jim Bell – part of the Perseverance rover team – said any life on Mars would be ill-suited to survive on Earth.
"We're talking about a completely different ecosystem, a completely different potential biosphere. And, of course, we don't know if there is or was a biosphere on Mars at all,'' he said.
A NASA spokesman said it would be the first mission to return scientifically selected samples from another planet and 'safety will be a priority'.
The 'key objective' of Perseverance's mission was to find signs of ancient microbial life on Mars and it was vital specimens came to Earth so they could undergo detailed chemical and physical analyses in laboratories around the world.
"The samples collected by NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover during its exploration of an ancient lakebed are thought to present the best opportunity to reveal clues about the early evolution of Mars, including the potential for past life,'' he added.
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