New Approach to Planetary Protection Needed as More Players Engage in Exploration

New Approach to Planetary Protection Needed as More Players Engage in Exploration

A new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine concludes that new approaches to setting and implementing planetary protection policies are needed.  The report cites a changing landscape where more countries and private sector companies are planning missions to destinations like Mars, and sample return and human missions come closer to reality.  The report urges NASA to create an agency-wide strategic plan to manage planetary protection policy development in this new environment that takes private sector views into account. 

Planetary protection refers to protecting Earth and other solar system bodies from forward and back contamination as spacecraft are sent to or return from places that might harbor life.  Those include Mars and moons of the outer planets that scientists believe have oceans under their icy crusts like Europa and Enceladus.

At NASA’s request, the Academies conducted a study, chaired by Joseph Alexander, to assess the process used to formulate, implement and ensure compliance with planetary protection policy.  Alexander spent many years in science management positions at NASA and is a former director of the Space Studies Board (SSB) at the National Academies.  Now a consultant, he recently authored the book Science Advice to NASA: Conflict, Consensus, Partnership, Leadership.

NASA has played a major role in developing the existing consensus-based international planetary protection policies through the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) of the International Council for Science, but those policies are non-binding.

To date, the COSPAR planetary protection guidelines have worked in part because so few countries are engaged in sending probes to potentially life-supporting destinations.  That is changing as more countries and companies get involved and science no longer is the primary rationale for exploration.

The report 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.

“This future transformative context for solar system exploration has implications for planetary protection policy development and implementation. The involvement of more governments and potentially, the private sector introduces new players, priorities, and opportunities for using and advancing science and technology. Efforts to establish human presence on Mars also will profoundly affecting the historical and internationally well-accepted objectives of avoiding harmful contamination of other planetary bodies.”

SpaceX is a case in point. Founder and CEO Elon Musk has laid out bold plans for sending millions of humans to Mars.  Asked how his committee obtained input from the private sector in writing its report,  Alexander said in an email interview that “some companies” were invited to meet with the committee “but declined to do so in an open forum.”  The National Academies must abide by section 15 of the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA), which requires information-gathering sessions to be held in public.

Instead, the committee heard from the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, and PoliSpace, Alexander said.

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.

The report notes a “regulatory gap” with regard to oversight of U.S. private sector missions that might involve planetary protection issues because no agency has been legally designated to “authorize and continually supervise” non-governmental space activities as required by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.  Initial steps have been taken by the Trump Administration in Space Policy Directive-2 and by House passage of the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act, but nothing has been finalized yet.  The report calls on Congress to pass legislation designating an agency to fill that gap.  It notes that NASA is not a regulatory agency, but its expertise should be utilized to inform “the exercise of regulatory authority.”  Alexander compared it to the technical expertise NASA currently provides to the FAA in its regulation of commercial launches.

The report raises the intriguing question of whether a time limit should exist for planetary protection requirements.  A major reason for establishing planetary protection rules to protect other solar system bodies is scientific — to ensure that if life is discovered, it is indigenous and not something brought there from Earth. At some point, the scientific question of whether indigenous life exists will be answered and the protocols no longer may be needed.

“As capabilities increase and knowledge of solar system environments grow, it is conceivable that there may be a lesser need for strict policies” once the existence of past or present indigenous life is established.  The report recommends that NASA and COSPAR “facilitate development of an international strategy for establishing periods of biological exploration.”

Most of the report addresses NASA’s policy making process for planetary protection, which is undergoing its own changes.  NASA recently decided to move its Planetary Protection Office (PPO) from the Science Mission Directorate to the Office of Safety and Mission Assurance (OSMA), but the report points out that PPO has “several conflicting duties: formulating policy, implementing policy, and ensuring policy compliance.”  While finding that PPO’s move to OSMA is “well founded,” the report lists several areas that still need clarification with regard to roles, responsibilities, resources, and locations of OPP functions.   It recommends that the European Space Agency’s process for planetary protection could be a model for NASA.

The report was written by a committee formed under the aegis of the Academies’ SSB, which has played a critical role in the development of international planetary protection principles since the 1950s as the U.S. member of COSPAR.  The committee offered some advice to the SSB, too.

“The SSB and NASA should pursue new mechanisms to anticipate emerging issues in planetary protection, respond more rapidly, and address new dimensions, such as private sector missions and human exploration.  Future decadal survey committees should give greater prominence to planetary protection issues and play a more proactive role in their identification and possible resolution.”




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