Planetary protection constraints on robotic exploration of Mars can be relaxed – SpacePolicyOnline.com
The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine released another in a series of reports reassessing the restrictions needed to preserve the chance to unambiguously determine whether indigenous life exists or did exist on Mars. As more countries and businesses want to explore the planet, and knowledge grows about the places most likely to seek life on Mars, scientists are asked if the planetary protection guidelines can be relaxed. This report says yes, at least in some cases.
The new report examines the “bioburden” requirements for “Category IV” robotic missions to Mars, as defined in international guidelines issued by the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) of the International Science Council. The National Academies Space Studies Board (SSB) is the United States representative to COSPAR and has led the development of planetary protection guidelines since the onset of the space age.
Planetary protection refers to protecting other planetary bodies from microbial contamination delivered by the probes we send there (forward contamination) and protecting the Earth from contamination by microbes that could be brought here by the return of spacecraft (rear contamination). For scientists, the goal of protecting other planetary bodies is that if signs of life are found, they will know it is native.
COSPAR classifies missions according to the type of spacecraft (for example, overflight, orbiter, lander) and whether the destination is a “target body of chemical evolution and / or origin of vital interest and for which the The scientific opinion offers a significant risk of contamination which could jeopardize future investigations. The probes and the landers bound for Mars are part of those of category IV and should see their bioburden (number of spores) reduced thanks to the sterilization of the spacecraft.
It costs a lot of time and money. As more countries and now businesses want to explore Mars, questions arise as to what exactly is needed.
A committee of national academies concluded in 2018 that new approaches to defining and implementing planetary protection guidelines are needed, including taking into account the interests of the commercial sector.
In 2019, NASA created an Independent Planetary Protection Review Board (PPIRB) to review NASA policies that modernization was necessary. NASA asked the Academies to review the PPIRB report, and in 2020 it identified three common areas: a new consultative process is needed, legal and regulatory issues need to be clarified, and the scientific and technical underpinnings of protection policies. planetary need to be established.
The Academies have created a Committee on the Protection of the Planet (CoPP), co-chaired by Joseph Alexander, who chaired the 2018 and 2020 Academies reports, and Amanda Hendrix, to continue addressing these issues. Last year, the CoPP issued a report recommending that NASA relax some of its requirements for lunar planetary protection.
This new CoPP report follows suit with regard to Mars. While stressing the need to preserve “an unambiguous separation or distinction between terrestrial organisms and native Martian organisms … through planetary protection protocols”, he noted that these protocols could be relaxed in certain places and under certain conditions. .
In a presentation at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society’s Division of Planetary Sciences (DPS) on Thursday, Hendrix said that “the committee’s findings may lead to making parts of Mars more accessible to commercial and government companies by relaxing the planetary protection requirements while remaining cautious about access to potential habitable areas.
A senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute, Hendrix explained that the details of reducing the bioburden were not the committee’s responsibility. “What is the spore count on that – we didn’t go – but what we said was that there must be pre-launch cleanliness arrangements made by such missions.”
She also pointed out that the report’s findings and conclusions focus on the exploration of Mars by a robotic spacecraft, not humans. The latter would be a “different ball game.” … The planetary protection policy for human missions is not well developed at this stage.
Obviously, humans cannot be sterilized like a spaceship.
The report also found that instead of relying on pre-launch spore count as is currently the case, NASA could use a four-step risk management approach.
The study was commissioned by NASA and the results and conclusions are for NASA. Hendrix pointed out that NASA is not a regulator and therefore cannot require anyone else, such as businesses, to follow guidelines. The report notes that the US government “has yet to designate a regulatory body to authorize and permanently oversee” the activities of 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 life research and astrobiology-related science in the future, safely and without contamination,” she declared. “There is a regulatory gap in terms of planetary protection oversight for non-NASA missions and it is a problem… we hope it will be addressed in the near future.”
The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy released a national strategy on protecting the planet in December 2020 under the Trump administration, and the Biden administration is continuing its work to implement it.