National Academies: Planetary Protection Constraints on Robotic Mars Exploration Can Be Relaxed

National Academies: Planetary Protection Constraints on Robotic Mars Exploration Can Be Relaxed

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine has issued another in a series of reports reassessing what restrictions are needed to preserve the chance of unambiguously determining if indigenous life exists or existed on Mars. As more countries and companies want to explore the planet, and knowledge grows about the most likely places to look for life on Mars, scientists are being asked if planetary protection guidelines can be relaxed. This report says yes, in some cases at least.

The new report looks at “bioburden” requirements for “Category IV” robotic missions to Mars as set in international guidelines issued by the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) of the International Council on Science. The Space Studies Board (SSB) of the National Academies is the U.S. representative to COSPAR and has led the development of the planetary protection guidelines since the beginning of the Space Age.

Planetary protection refers to protecting other planetary bodies from microbial contamination delivered by probes we send there (forward contamination), and protecting Earth from contamination by microbes that might be brought here by returning spacecraft (back contamination). For scientists, the purpose of protecting the other planetary bodies is so that if any signs of life are discovered, they know it is indigenous.

COSPAR categorizes missions based on the type of spacecraft (e.g. flyby, orbiter, lander) and whether the destination is a “target body of chemical evolution and/or origin of life interest and for which scientific opinion provides a significant chance of contamination which could compromise future investigations.” Probes and landers headed to Mars are among those in Category IV and should have their bioburden (number of spores) reduced through sterilization of the spacecraft.

That is costly in time and money. As more countries and now companies want to explore Mars, questions are arising about exactly what is necessary.

A National Academies committee concluded in 2018 that new approaches to setting and implementing planetary protection guidelines are needed, including taking the interests of the commercial sector into account.

In 2019, NASA created a Planetary Protection Independent Review Board (PPIRB) to review NASA’s policies that agreed modernization was needed. NASA asked the Academies to review the PPIRB report and in 2020 it identified three areas of commonality: a new advisory process is needed, legal and regulatory issues need to be clarified, and the scientific and technical foundations of planetary protection policies need to be established.

The Academies created a Committee on Planetary Protection (CoPP), co-chaired by Joseph Alexander, who chaired the 2018 and 2020 Academies reports, and Amanda Hendrix, to continue to address these issues. Last year CoPP issued a report recommending NASA relax some of its lunar planetary protection requirements.

This new CoPP report follows suit with regard to Mars. While stressing the need to preserve “unambiguous separation or distinguishability of terrestrial organisms from indigenous martian organisms … through planetary protection protocols,” it found those protocols could be relaxed in certain places under certain conditions.

In a presentation at a meeting of the Division on Planetary Sciences (DPS) of the American Astronomical Society on Thursday, Hendrix said “the committee’s findings can lead to making portions of Mars more accessible to both commercial and government endeavors by relaxing planetary protection requirements while remaining careful about access to potential habitable zones.”

A senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute, Hendrix explained that details on how much the bioburden could be reduced was outside the committee’s charge. “What’s the spore count on that — we didn’t go there — but what we did say is that there do need to be some pre-launch cleanliness provisions taken by such missions.”

She also emphasized the report’s findings and conclusions focus on exploration of Mars by robotic spacecraft, not by humans. The latter would a “different ballgame. … Planetary protection policy for human missions is not well developed at this point.”

Obviously, humans cannot be sterilized like spacecraft.

The report also found that instead of relying on pre-launch spore counts as it does now, NASA could use a four-step risk management approach.

The study was requested by NASA and the findings and conclusions are for NASA. Hendrix pointed out that NASA is not a regulatory body so cannot require anyone else, like companies, to follow any guidelines. The report notes the U.S. Government “still needs to designate a regulatory agency with responsibility to authorize and continually supervise” activities by non-governmental entities as required by Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty.

“The hope is that, of course, all missions to Mars will follow planetary protection guidelines to preserve the search for life and astrobiology-related science in the future, safe and uncontaminated,” she said. “There is a gap in the regulations in terms of oversight of planetary protection for non-NASA missions and this is a problem … we hope will be dealt with in the near future.”

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy issued a National Strategy on Planetary Protection in December 2020 under the Trump Administration and the Biden Administration is continuing work to implement it.

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