We're a lovely, ethical, near-future population of Earthlings, and prepared to begin terraforming Mars (yes, I went there: set it aside).

We have just stumbled on remnants of an alien civilization that both dates to around the same time as our Phoenicia in terms of relative technology and social norms, though a much earlier expiry. As an aside, my story asserts that they were human-like or typical movie alien trope, and Mars was once habitable. The level of historic preservation is similar to what we can find on Earth.

These are a really nice find, but...

What are the best practices today that can be applied to the treatment of these artifacts?

NOTE: I am aware from this Meta post that this may or may not apply to , but cited sources or examples of acceptable best-practice (changed obviously to relate to the remains of an alien civilization) in archaeology, etc., and academic resources are appreciated.


2 Answers 2


Prevent contamination.

Contamination is something that NASA and other space agencies are careful about when sending rovers to other planets (e.g. Mars). Rovers could accidentally release bacteria from Earth, thereby making it harder to tell if organic material is from Mars or from Earth. Returning samples to Earth is also a problem, as there is an even greater risk there. Ideas have been proposed to solve this problem. However, it would take a while to prepare:

It has been estimated that the planning, design, site selection, environmental reviews, approvals, construction, commissioning, and pre-testing of a proposed SRF will occur 7 to 10 years before actual operations begin. In addition, 5 to 6 years will likely be required for refinement and maturation of SRF-associated technologies for safely containing and handling samples to avoid contamination and to further develop and refine biohazard-test protocols. Many of the capabilities and technologies will either be entirely new or will be required to meet the unusual challenges of integration into an overall (end-to-end) Mars sample return program.

We can assume that it would take quite a long time to do this on Mars, too.

The current best way to do this is to use a clean room back on Earth prior to launch; this is the current protocol. It is also hard for Earth microbes to survive in space or on Mars. Conditions on the red planet for Earth microbes are not good:

In the recent study, researchers simulated a Mars rover sitting on a landing platform for one, three and six hours while being exposed to Martian levels of ultraviolet (UV) rays. Even such short amounts of time killed between 81 percent and 96.6 percent of the Bacillus subtilis bacteria used in the experiment.

Contamination can also be approached from an archaeological point of view, e.g. as suggested by Yang & Watt (2005). This study relates more to saving ancient DNA, as opposed to stopping new material from being introduced, thereby making it easier to study any traces of old alien life. Contamination in archaeological investigations can come from many sources:

Sources of contamination vary considerably depending on the type of ancient remains and the types of research questions being posed:

  1. In ancient human DNA studies, contaminant DNA can come from individuals who excavate, study and handle the remains as well as those who manufacture laboratory supplies such as chemical reagents and even test tubes.
  2. For ancient faunal and floral DNA studies, contamination would most likely originate from modern reference specimens that are used for detailed one-to- one comparisons during morphological identifications of the remains. Human DNA should not be considered a contamination source if distinctive PCR primers for ancient faunal and floral DNA studies are carefully chosen.
  3. For ancient pathogenic DNA studies of bacterial species, contaminant DNA may also come from closely related species in soils and surrounding environments (soil samples should therefore be collected in order to determine whether soils contain closely related species). PCR techniques should also be specifically designed to use those DNA markers that can distinguish target pathogenic species from possible contaminant species.

There are ways to combat this:

  1. Do not attempt to clean specimens designated for ancient DNA analysis, dirt on the specimens may serve as protection against contaminants entering into bone tissues, making in-laboratory decontamination easier.
  2. Do not wash specimens as water may cause contaminant DNA to penetrate deeply into bone tissues and may also cause hydrolytic damage to ancient DNA.
  3. If possible, avoid adding any preservatives to specimens as these chemicals may inhibit PCR amplifications and may cause potential contaminant DNA to adhere to the specimens.
  4. Store specimens in cool, dry conditions to avoid further degradation of ancient DNA.
  5. Store ancient specimens separately from modern reference specimens to prevent cross-sample contamination.
  6. If possible, change gloves and clean or change tools from one specimen to another when handling. Specimens should be individually stored in plastic bags or tubes but only when they are completely dry. Otherwise, a paper bag should be used.

These suggestions can be modified for the archaeological discoveries on Mars.


I would be very wary of actually excavating alien technology until it has been studied for a very long time remotely. We have no idea of what level of technology the aliens actually had (or worse yet, have; they might still be in the neighbourhood) and playing around with stuff you don't understand the principles of could be extremely bad for your health.

As an example, imagine Victorian British engineers came across a nuclear reactor. They have no concept of radioactivity or nuclear fission, so when they decide to strip it down to examine the parts, or pull the cadmium control rods from the core for examination because they are the easiest part to get to, extreme mayhem will ensue.

The alien artifacts might be carriers of nanotechnology, spores of some form of life, the equivalent of DNA, mind altering algorithms or something even stranger.

Step one would be to build a control station on one opt the Martian moons, and set up a system of relay satellites, so remote investigation can be conducted with minimum light speed lag. Once that is done, spend a great deal of time staring at the find using multispectral sensors in orbit. Look at the find from as many angles as possible, by day and by night, and over a sufficient timespan that we know the item(s) don't become active at night or when the Martian seasons change. After than, send remote landers. The can gradually close in and begin scanning with passive and active sensors. The investigation is continually recorded in HD, so any event can be replayed and studied from multiple angles to ensure no mistakes are made, or if they are made, they are not repeated.

Finally, after all this is done, then you can start to move up to physically "touch" the items with the remote tools to take samples and so on. A robot lab can be sent down to do detailed testing if needed, but the humans always remain in space until there is enough evidence that the artifacts are inert and safe. Even then, caution is needed for the human investigators, and they may end up being exiled on Mars for the rest of their lives.


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