NASA Takes Step Towards Modernizing Planetary Protection Guidelines

NASA Takes Step Towards Modernizing Planetary Protection Guidelines

A panel of academic and industry experts convened by NASA to assess the need to modernize planetary protection principles released more than 80 findings and recommendations on Friday.  Chaired by planetary scientist Alan Stern, the panel concluded that not only do existing principles need to be updated, but NASA should revisit these issues at least twice a decade as more and more knowledge is gained about the solar system and the evolution of life. The main theme is that the entire paradigm for planetary protection is changing not only due to the advent of new scientific insights, but also the emergence of commercial space activities. The government should encourage the private sector initiatives and have a transparent, predictable regulatory environment for them.

Planetary protection refers to protecting other solar system bodies from contamination by people and probes launched from Earth (forward contamination), and protecting Earth from contamination by materials brought back by people and probes (back contamination).

Alan Stern, Southwest Research Institute (SwRI). Credit: SwRI (Ian McKinney)

Efforts to prevent forward contamination stem from scientists searching for evidence of life on other worlds.  If they find it, they want to be certain it is indigenous life, not delivered there by robotic or human missions from Earth. Back contamination is designed to protect life on Earth when samples are brought back here.

These concerns date back to the beginning of space exploration and Article IX of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty requires signatories to explore the Moon and other celestial bodies “so as to avoid their harmful contamination and also adverse changes in the environment of Earth…”

For the past five decades, planetary protection procedures have been guided by principles largely drafted by U.S. scientists and adopted by the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) of the International Council for Science.  The Space Studies Board (SSB) of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine is the U.S. member of COSPAR.  The current President of COSPAR is American — Lennard Fisk, a distinguished professor at the University of Michigan and a past SSB chair and former head of NASA’s science programs.

The Stern panel was established in response to a recommendation from the NASA Advisory Council’s (NAC’s) industry-oriented Regulatory and Policy Committee. Its recommendations will be presented to NAC later this month and then go to the SSB, which is setting up a committee to review them.  From there they will go to COSPAR where Fisk will seek international input hopefully leading to revised principles.

Stern, from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), is perhaps best known as the Principal Investigator of the New Horizons mission that sent back the first close-up pictures of Pluto and the Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule.  He also is a former NASA Associate Administrator (AA) for the Science Mission Directorate (SMD).  His panel reported to the current AA for SMD, Thomas Zurbuchen.

The stars seem particularly well aligned right now for this reassessment. Though they view the issue through different lenses, scientists agree with the commercial sector that the current principles are outdated.  The SSB released its own report last summer, conducted at NASA’s request, that also said a new approach is needed.  Having a highly respected American scientist and former SSB chair at the helm of COSPAR should ease the path of getting the issue onto the international table.

But tension between commercial interests and scientists, primarily in the United States, are at the heart of this particular planetary protection (PP) review.  Companies want to explore and extract and utilize resources on the Moon, Mars and asteroids without being hampered by unnecessary regulations.

NASA is not a regulatory agency and has no authority over non-NASA missions, but anyone launching on a U.S. rocket needs approval from the FAA, which may ask NASA for advice, and the companies may need NASA tracking stations or other NASA equipment or services to execute their missions. In fact, one of the panel’s top recommendations is to clarify NASA’s policy for exercising planetary protection authority over primarily non-NASA missions that may have some level of NASA involvement.

Four of Stern’s Planetary Protection Independent Review Board’s (PPIRB’s) 11 members were from industry: Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, SpaceX and the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.  The report’s first two findings reflect that they found common ground, which is also evident through the rest of the report.

Major Finding: With the advent of private sector robotic and human planetary missions, as well as new ultra-low cost (e.g., CubeSat-class) planetary missions, the context in which PP is conducted is profoundly and rapidly changing.
Major Finding: For planetary missions involving locations of high astrobiological potential, it is essential that forward and backward contamination consideration be integral to mission implementation. This applies to both government and private sector missions.

Later the report urges the government to encourage private sector initiatives and ensure whatever planetary protection requirements are levied to ensure compliance with the Outer Space Treaty are “transparent, timely, predictable…minimizing costs and burdens on private sector activities where possible.”

Those issues can be handled domestically, but the major change proposed by the panel will require a reformulation of the international guidelines.

The panel recommends 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, the PPIRB report suggests a more tailored, nuanced approach. All of Mars, for example, does not need to be classified as Category IV since it is now known that “many areas of the surface are not locations of PP concern”  and the same may be true of the subsurface.  Similarly, parts of the Moon’s surface and subsurface potentially could be reclassified as Category I instead of Category II.

In short, it appears that the PPIRB was a useful exercise in bringing together the two communities.  There is no assurance all disputes have been settled, or course.  One area where there may still be disagreement, for example, is terminology.  Mike Gold of Maxar Technologies, who chairs the NAC committee that raised these issues, and others insist the term planetary protection itself needs to go.  The Outer Space Treaty refers to “harmful contamination,” not “planetary protection.”  Stern said at Friday’s press conference that the PPIRB discussed the issue “a little bit,” but “informally we felt planetary protection is well enough understood, if not sufficiently descriptive, that it should be left alone.”

In a cover letter accompanying the report, Zurbuchen called the report an “important step forward in a very complex area.”  Now “internal and external coordination … will enhance this discussion and inform NASA’s next steps.”

Stern said he will brief NAC at its next meeting, which is October 31-November 1 at Kennedy Space Center.  Then he will brief the SSB, which meets November 6-8 in Irvine, CA.  He is on the agenda for November 7.

Meanwhile, the SSB has organized a panel discussion on these issues this Thursday at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Washington, D.C.  Speakers include three NASA officials (Planetary Protection Officer Lisa Pratt, Chief Scientist Jim Green, and lead scientist for Mars exploration Michael Meyer), two from industry (Astrobotic’s Dan Hendrickson and ispace’s Kyle Acierno), and Simonetta Di Pippo, Director of the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs.

As Stern and Zurbuchen stressed on Friday, release of the report may signal the end of the PPIRB’s work, but it is just the beginning of the work that needs to be done.

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