NASA Issues Interim Modernized Planetary Protection Guidelines

NASA Issues Interim Modernized Planetary Protection Guidelines

As plans for human journeys back to the Moon and on to Mars move closer to reality, NASA today issued modernized guidelines on how to protect those bodies and Earth from contamination.  Existing international rules are too strict to allow many of the activities envisioned by governments and the private sector in a new era of human expansion beyond low Earth orbit. These interim directives, one for the Moon and one for Mars, will guide NASA as input is sought from the broader space community.

Since the earliest days of planetary exploration, international “planetary protection” guidelines have set standards to ensure spacecraft do not deposit Earth-based microbes on other bodies where life may exist (“forward contamination”) or bring anything harmful back here (“backward contamination”).  The guidelines are promulgated through the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) of the International Science Council. The Space Studies Board (SSB) of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine is the U.S. member of COSPAR.

NASA has contracted with the SSB since 2017 to take a new look at planetary protection as more and more countries – and companies – get involved in planetary exploration and the level of knowledge about solar system bodies grows with each spacecraft that visits.  NASA also set up its own Planetary Protection Independent Review Board (PPIRB) to look at the issue.  It was chaired by Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute and included representation not only from the science community, but the private sector.

A 2018 SSB report concluded that the changing landscape warranted a new approach to setting and implementing planetary protection guidelines and stressed the standards should apply equally to the government and private sector.

NASA’s PPIRB issued its report in October 2019. It agreed with the SSB and went further to recommend that instead of placing entire planets or other celestial bodies into one of the five existing planetary protection categories based on the likelihood they may harbor life, a more tailored, nuanced approach be used. All of Mars, for example, does not need to be Category IV since many surface areas are not of concern from a planetary protection standpoint.  Similarly, parts of the Moon potentially could be reclassified as Category I instead of Category II.

NASA asked SSB to assess the extent to which the PPIRB report agreed with the 2018 SSB recommendations.  In a report earlier this year, the SSB found three areas of strategic commonality: 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.

The next formal step in the process to revise the international guidelines is for COSPAR to consider them.  That can be a lengthy process, however, and NASA is anxious to move forward.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine: Photo credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Today, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine released two NASA Interim Directives (NIDs) that it will use while the international process plays out.

At a “Moon Dialogs” webinar sponsored by the Open Lunar Foundation, Secure World Foundation, the MIT Space Exploration Initiative, Arizona State University and For All Moonkind, Bridenstine stressed they are not “policy” directives, but “interim” directives that are “not set in stone.”

In fact, a key message from Bridenstine and other speakers was that the entire planetary protection paradigm will continue to change as more data is obtained about planets, moons, asteroids and comets to inform decisions about exactly what needs to be protected. Whatever guidelines emerge this time will be further revised in the future.

The NIDs will be considered by the newly created SSB Committee on Planetary Protection. Then COSPAR will review whatever the SSB forwards to its recently restructured Panel on Planetary Protection, which has a broadly-based international membership.

Lennard Fisk, President, Committee on Space Research (COSPAR). Credit: University of Michigan

Len Fisk, President of COSPAR, told in an interview that NASA has kept him apprised of its plans to issue the NIDs and looks forward to COSPAR’s opportunity to review them as the process unfolds. He added that reaching international agreement will be an ongoing process, with some more difficult decisions lying ahead, such as partitioning Mars into regions subject to different levels of protection as recommended by NASA’s PPIRB.

Fisk is a former chairman of the SSB and former NASA Associate Administrator for Space Science and Applications.

Bridenstine acknowledged that more data is required about Mars before deciding which parts of the planet need what level of protection. Currently the entire planet is Category IV and also poses risks of back contamination.  NASA’s Mars Perseverance mission, scheduled for launch at the end of the month, will collect and store samples that will be returned to Earth by other spacecraft in 2031 if current schedules hold. The Mars NID covers any missions with NASA involvement, including commercial missions sponsored by NASA, joint missions in which NASA participates, and NASA support of non-NASA missions to the extent specified in related agreements.

As for the Moon, that NID separates the Moon into two areas.  After the discovery of water ice at the lunar poles, the Moon was elevated from Category I, which requires minimal planetary protection measures, to Category II. The lunar NID  reclassifies most of the surface as Category I.  Category II will apply only to the permanently shadowed areas at the poles where the water ice (and therefore possibly life) exists and the Apollo landing sites and other historical sites.

The NIDs do not apply to other countries or the private sector if their missions do not involve NASA.  Speaking on today’s panel, Mike Gold, NASA Acting Associate Administrator for International and Interagency Relations, said the NIDs will be a path forward for them. “We shouldn’t be asking the question of government or private sector, science or human spaceflight, these are not in conflict, they’re complimentary activities.”

Bridenstine vowed that NASA is trying to find a balance among the interests of the scientific, human exploration, and commercial communities.  “It is something we absolutely must work toward every single day.”

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