Independent Process Needed For Setting Planetary Protection Policy

Independent Process Needed For Setting Planetary Protection Policy

A new report from the National Academies calls on NASA to create a permanent, independent advisory body representing all stakeholders to advise the agency on planetary protection policies.  The report reemphasizes how much has changed since international policies were last updated, with more and more countries, and companies, interested in robotic planetary exploration and human exploration of Mars.  The international Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) is already looking at planetary protection in the context of human Mars missions and will hold a virtual workshop next week.

Since the earliest days of the space program, COSPAR, part of the International Council of Science, has promulgated planetary protection policies to prevent Earth microbes from contaminating other planets as solar system exploration got underway. The policies also are designed to protect Earth from alien microbes when samples are returned to Earth.

The goal is not only to protect life here, but ensure that any life discovered elsewhere is indigenous, not transplanted from Earth.

The Space Studies Board (SSB) of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine is the U.S. member of COSPAR and, together with NASA, has drafted international planetary protection policies for consideration by all the COSPAR members. Adherence to COSPAR policies is voluntary, but they are the international standard.

For decades, planetary exploration was limited to the United States and the Soviet Union, but those days are long past.  More countries — and now companies — are sending or plan to send robotic probes to land on other solar system bodies.  China will launch its first Mars orbiter/lander/rover this summer, Tianwen-1.

Illustration of China’s Mars lander/rover, Tianwen-1. Credit: China Daily, Sept. 20, 2017.

As missions get more innovative, they will expand the surface area over which they travel.  NASA has landed eight spacecraft on Mars already and in July will send another, this time with a new twist. The Mars Perseverance rover has a buddy — a helicopter named Ingenuity,

Later this decade, NASA’s Dragonfly mission will send a dual-quadcopter to fly over the dunes of Saturn’s moon Titan.

At the same time, human trips to Mars are getting closer to realization. NASA wants to send astronauts to Mars in the 2030s, perhaps as soon as 2033, though many consider that overly ambitious.  Elon Musk, founder and chief engineer of SpaceX, has his own plans to send humans to Mars.

Before that, NASA and the European Space Agency hope to return samples of Mars to Earth.  Mars Perseverance carries a system to collect and store (“cache”) samples that will be retrieved by a future robotic “fetch” rover and launched into orbit around Mars where they will be picked up by a robotic probe that will bring them back to Earth in 2031.  The Apollo astronauts brought 842 pounds of lunar rocks back to Earth and U.S. and Japanese probes have returned samples of a comet (NASA’s Stardust in 2006), an asteroid (Japan’s Hayabusa in 2010), and the solar wind (NASA’s Genesis in 2004). Both soon will return more asteroid samples (Japan’s Hayabusa2 in December of this year, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx in 2023), but the Mars samples will be the first from a location some scientists believe once harbored microbial life.

In 2017, NASA asked the SSB to review how planetary protection policies are developed in the light of the changing environment, including the costs incurred in designing and sterilizing spacecraft to meet current requirements.

In a 2018 report, a study committee chaired by Joseph Alexander concluded that planetary protection policies and requirements should apply equally to government and private sector missions.  Consequently domestic and international policy-making processes need to take private sector views into account.  It also postulated that planetary protection requirements designed to protect other planets from contamination might be subject to a time limit once the existence, or not, of indigenous life is determined.

Later that year, a committee of the NASA Advisory Council asked NASA to form a task group to relook at the agency’s own planetary protection requirements. That task group, the Planetary Protection Independent Review Board (PPIRB), was chaired by Alan Stern, principal investigator of the New Horizons mission that visited Pluto and a Kuiper Belt Object. The PPIRB issued its report in October 2019.

NASA then asked the SSB to review the PPIRB findings and assess areas of commonality and differences with the SSB’s 2018 report.

The new SSB report, by a committee also chaired by Alexander, identified three areas “of strategic importance” common to the PPIRB and 2018 SSB reports:

  • Establishing a new advisory process;
  • Clarifying legal and regulatory issues; and
  • Building the scientific and technical foundations of planetary protection policies for human missions to Mars.

Alexander told in an email interview that a key aspect of the new advisory process is that it not only be independent, but broadly-based, representing all stakeholders.  He also stressed that NASA, in conjunction with the State Department and other agencies, must explain how the Outer Space Treaty requires that U.S. government responsibilities apply to non-governmental missions and help the private sector understand how to comply with them.  As for the scientific and technical foundation of policies for human exploration of Mars, he concludes that “research is still lagging what is needed to define a credible approach.”

He believes COSPAR is the best venue to reach international consensus on these issues. “COSPAR remains the only proven platform for developing consensus-based international guidelines for planetary protection. The U.S. has played a leadership role with COSPAR in the past, and we have the opportunity to continue as COSPAR deals with new dimensions such as private sector actors and humans-to-Mars.”

Thomas Zurbuchen, head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, told in an emailed statement that he is studying the SSB’s report.  “We’re fully reviewing the report now. I understand the committee found that many of the PPIRB’s findings were consistent with the NASEM 2018 report, and we need to take a thoughtful look at the new recommendations and evaluate next steps.”

COSPAR is already working on these issues. It recently reformed and reorganized its Panel on Planetary Protection to broaden its membership beyond planetary protection experts and increase the frequency of its meetings.  COSPAR will hold a virtual workshop next week on planetary protection and human exploration of Mars. It is open to the public.


Note: this article has been updated.

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