White House Releases Implementing Strategy for Planetary Protection

White House Releases Implementing Strategy for Planetary Protection

The White House today released a strategy for implementing the section of U.S. National Space Policy regarding planetary protection — protecting Earth from harmful contamination by microbes from elsewhere in the solar system and vice versa. The topic has gained new prominence in recent years as not only more countries, but companies, make plans to send probes into deep space.

The new strategy was developed by an Interagency Working Group led by the White’s House National Space Council and Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) established in July 2020 while the Trump Administration’s updated National Space Policy was still in development.  Published on December 9, it directed OSTP, NASA, the Department of Commerce and others to lead the development of planetary protection guidelines.

The Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, in coordination with the Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Secretary of Commerce, and the heads of other agencies as appropriate, shall lead the development of national and international planetary protection guidelines, working with scientific, commercial, and international partners, for the appropriate protection of planetary bodies and Earth from harmful biological contamination. — U.S. National Space Policy

Today’s strategy implements that policy with a strong focus on enabling the private sector, not just governments, to safely and sustainably explore space.

Never before has the United States been so capable of making groundbreaking scientific and technical achievements with such regularity. However, these feats must be attained with safety and sustainability in mind. Our future leadership in space exploration will not be the result of a decision to embrace either commercial spaceflight or scientific progress; rather, it will depend on our successfully advancing both of these pursuits simultaneously and in a compatible fashion.  — National Strategy for Planetary Protection

Since the beginning of the Space Age, the United States has led development of international planetary protection guidelines through the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR), part of the International Science Council (formerly the International Council of Scientific Unions). The Space Studies Board (SSB) of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine is the U.S. member of COSPAR.

The principles are non-binding, but are the international standard.

The major concern to date has been preventing the biological contamination of other bodies that might interfere with scientific investigations into whether life developed elsewhere — forward contamination.  However, with missions now being planned to return samples from Mars, where some believe microbial  life does or did exist, concern about protecting Earth — backward contamination — is growing.  NASA’s Mars Perseverance mission, on its way to Mars right now, is the first of three NASA/ESA missions designed to return samples of Mars to Earth in the next decade.

NASA’s Mars Perseverance mission will collect samples and put them in cigar-shaped tubes (foreground) for later retrieval and return to Earth by future NASA/ESA robotic spacecraft. Credit: NASA

The advent of private sector companies planning to send their own spacecraft into deep space also has changed the dynamics.

In 2017, NASA asked the SSB to look at the issue. It concluded in 2018 that a new approach is needed taking private sector interests into account and recommended that the existing interagency review process, established in 1977 in NSC-25, be revisited.

Later that year,  NASA convened the Planetary Protection Independent Review Board (PPIRB) to review NASA’s role. That report said the entire paradigm for planetary protection is changing and the principles and even the terminology should be updated. The SSB reviewed the PPRIB report at NASA’s request and in May 2020 called on NASA to create a permanent, independent advisory body representing both government and private sector stakeholders to advise the agency on planetary protection policies. The SSB soon created the Committee on Planetary Protection (CoPP) as a standing committee.

CoPP released its first report yesterday on the topic of lunar volatiles. It concluded a “clear articulation” of science priorities for exploring Permanently Shadowed Regions (PSRs) on the Moon “is required for an effective planetary protection policy for the Moon.”  However, although NASA’s interim lunar planetary protection guidelines require inventories of biological materials on spacecraft landing near the lunar poles, such inventories “are unimportant for planetary protection purposes.”

COSPAR is already working on these issues as well. It recently reformed and reorganized its Panel on Planetary Protection to broaden its membership beyond planetary protection experts and increase the frequency of its meetings.

Today’s White House strategy sets forth three “overarching objectives” from a U.S. viewpoint and assigns responsibility for achieving them to various U.S. government entities.

Objective 1: Avoid harmful forward contamination by developing and implementing risk assessment and science-based guidelines and updating the interagency payload review process.
Objective 2: Avoid backward contamination by developing a Restricted Return Program to protect against adverse effects on the Earth environment due to the potential return of extraterrestrial life.
Objective 3: Incorporate the perspective and needs of the private sector by soliciting feedback and developing guidelines regarding private sector activities with potential planetary protection implications.

Scott Pace, deputy assistant to the President and Executive Secretary of the National Space Council, said in a statement that by establishing those objectives, the strategy “continues American leadership in scientific discovery, human exploration, and private sector space activities.”  OSTP Director Kelvin Droegemeier said it “upholds our Nation’s values, advances scientific discovery in space, and supports private sector activities through sustainable and safe means.”

Separately, Joseph Alexander, who chaired the two SSB studies and now chairs CoPP, told SpacePolicyOnline.com today the White House strategy has “no obvious conflicts” with what the SSB has recommended in its three recent reports.  “CoPP’s role is to be a bridge between the solar system exploration community and the U.S. government (especially NASA), and with the international community via COSPAR, on issues relating to meeting the goals of planetary protection. The new strategy sets national goals and then outlines how the agencies inside the government will work to meet them.”

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