NASA to Form Task Force to Review Planetary Protection Guidelines

NASA to Form Task Force to Review Planetary Protection Guidelines

NASA will form a Task Force to look at updating the planetary protection guidelines promulgated by the international Committee on Space Research (COSPAR).  The action comes in response to recommendations from a NASA Advisory Council (NAC) committee that were debated over the past two days and to a recent report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.  Both acknowledged that much has changed since the last time the guidelines were modified, including the growing interest of the private sector in exploring and utilizing Mars and other solar system bodies.

NAC reports to the NASA Administrator and Jim Bridenstine created a Regulatory and Policy Committee (RPC) soon after taking office.  It is chaired by Mike Gold of Maxar Technologies.  The RPC met for the first time on November 16.

One of RPCs many recommendations to NAC was to have NASA create a multidisciplinary team of experts from industry, science, and government to develop U.S. policies that “properly balance” the needs of industry, science, and human exploration when it comes to planetary protection.

For the past five decades, planetary protection procedures have been guided by COSPAR principles that are adopted by consensus at COSPAR, part of the International Council for Science.

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).

The RPC also recommended discontinuing use of the term planetary protection.  Instead, it wants to use “harmful contamination,” the wording in Article IX of the Outer Space Treaty (OST) that calls on signatories to avoid harmful contamination of other celestial bodies and to protect Earth from adverse changes as a result of space exploration.

Yesterday and today, NAC met to debate those and other recommendations from its various committees.

Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for Science Mission Directorate, NASA. Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

Thomas Zurbuchen, the head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD), and Len Fisk, the President of COSPAR, took part in the NAC meeting yesterday where most of the discussion took place.  Joining by telephone was Fiona Harrison, chair of the Academies’ Space Studies Board (SSB), which is the U.S. member of COSPAR and has played a pivotal role in developing the COSPAR planetary protection guidelines.  As chair of SSB she is an ex officio member of NAC.

Zurbuchen agreed to create a Task Force, including industry representatives, to develop proposed changes to the COSPAR guidelines.

Those proposed changes will be reviewed by three NAC committees (RPC, Science, and Human Exploration and Operations) and then NAC itself, with its recommendation forwarded to the Administrator.

After that, the proposal will be sent the SSB and its counterpart, the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board (ASEB) for review.  That result will be sent to COSPAR where international consensus will be sought.  Fisk, who also is a former SSB chair and former head of NASA’s science programs, said he is “excited about this possibility.” He joked that he is the first American President of COSPAR and in this case he is both the pitcher and the catcher for whatever proposal is made.

Asked about how much time this will take, Gold replied that “we know this process will take, and deserves, time.”  Apparently three NAC committees will play a role:  RPC, Science, and Human Exploration and Operations.

Zurbuchen stressed the need for SSB and ASEB to assess how whatever changes are proposed comply with the most recent advice from the Academies on this topic.

That advice was in a July 2018 report “Review and Assessment of Planetary Protection Policy Development Processes,” chaired by Joseph Alexander.  It identifies three new drivers — government agencies that want to pursue geopolitical and technology objectives embodied in human exploration of Mars; new governmental entrants seeking to join the community of space-faring nations by sending robotic and possibly humans missions to the Moon or Mars; and private sector entities that want to provide commercial transportation to the Moon and Mars or use space for commercial benefits such as asteroid mining.

The report argues that planetary protection policies and requirements should apply equally to government and private sector missions.  Therefore, domestic and international policy-making processes need to take private sector views into account.

Harrison encouraged everyone to read that report, which has “thoughtful recommendations” about what is needed.  The report appears to be in alignment with the RPC’s goal of getting industry a seat at the table when planetary protection guidelines are developed.

The decision for NASA to take the lead and follow existing processes through the Academies and COSPAR may ameliorate concerns that the needs of the science community may get lost in the drive towards human exploration and commercial utilization of space.  Scientists want to be sure that if they find life on Mars, for example, that it is indigenous and not brought there from Earth.

Harrison cautioned against changing the term planetary protection, which is well understood in scientific circles. Gold said his concern is that it is so broad.  The compromise was that the Task Force will “explore the use” of the term planetary protection versus other terms used in the Treaty.

Gold called the end result the “grand COSPAR compromise of 2018.”  He insists there is no dispute between industry, human spaceflight, and science: “we all travel together … these are complementary.”

The specific wording of the RPC recommendations was modified during the course of the NAC meeting.  The final version will be posted on the NAC website in due course.

Updated:  We received clarification that NAC will review the proposal before SSB/ASEB and have updated the article accordingly.

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