COSPAR Sample Safety Assessment Framework (SSAF)

Gerhard Kminek*, James N. Benardini, Frank E. Brenker, Timothy Brooks, Aaron S. Burton, Suresh Dhaniyala, Jason P. Dworkin, Jeffrey L. Fortman, Mihaela Glamoclija, Monica M. Grady, Heather V. Graham, Junichi Haruyama, Thomas L. Kieft, Marion Koopmans, Francis M. McCubbin, Michael A. Meyer, Christian Mustin, Tullis C. Onstott, Neil Pearce, Lisa M. PrattMark A. Sephton, Sandra Siljeström, Haruna Sugahara, Shino Suzuki, Yohey Suzuki, Mark Van Zuilen, Michel Viso

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Citations (Scopus)


The Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) Sample Safety Assessment Framework (SSAF) has been developed by a COSPAR appointed Working Group. The objective of the sample safety assessment would be to evaluate whether samples returned from Mars could be harmful for Earth's systems (e.g., environment, biosphere, geochemical cycles). During the Working Group's deliberations, it became clear that a comprehensive assessment to predict the effects of introducing life in new environments or ecologies is difficult and practically impossible, even for terrestrial life and certainly more so for unknown extraterrestrial life. To manage expectations, the scope of the SSAF was adjusted to evaluate only whether the presence of martian life can be excluded in samples returned from Mars. If the presence of martian life cannot be excluded, a Hold & Critical Review must be established to evaluate the risk management measures and decide on the next steps. The SSAF starts from a positive hypothesis (there is martian life in the samples), which is complementary to the null-hypothesis (there is no martian life in the samples) typically used for science. Testing the positive hypothesis includes four elements: (1) Bayesian statistics, (2) subsampling strategy, (3) test sequence, and (4) decision criteria. The test sequence capability covers self-replicating and non-self-replicating biology and biologically active molecules. Most of the investigations associated with the SSAF would need to be carried out within biological containment. The SSAF is described in sufficient detail to support planning activities for a Sample Receiving Facility (SRF) and for preparing science announcements, while at the same time acknowledging that further work is required before a detailed Sample Safety Assessment Protocol (SSAP) can be developed. The three major open issues to be addressed to optimize and implement the SSAF are (1) setting a value for the level of assurance to effectively exclude the presence of martian life in the samples, (2) carrying out an analogue test program, and (3) acquiring relevant contamination knowledge from all Mars Sample Return (MSR) flight and ground elements. Although the SSAF was developed specifically for assessing samples from Mars in the context of the currently planned NASA-ESA MSR Campaign, this framework and the basic safety approach are applicable to any other Mars sample return mission concept, with minor adjustments in the execution part related to the specific nature of the samples to be returned. The SSAF is also considered a sound basis for other COSPAR Planetary Protection Category V, restricted Earth return missions beyond Mars. It is anticipated that the SSAF will be subject to future review by the various MSR stakeholders.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)S186-S216
Issue numberS1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank COSPAR, NASA, ESA, JAXA, DLR, the Swedish National Space Agency and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) for financial support.

Publisher Copyright:
© Gerhard Kminek et al., 2022; Published by Mary Ann Liebert, Inc. 2022.


  • Mars Sample Return
  • Planetary Protection
  • Sample Safety Assessment


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