According to a report released today, NASA rules on the possible spread of microbes on other planets and the possible return of alien life governing the earth, often anachronistic and require a comprehensive rethinking by an independent advisory body of the agency.
The protection of the planets, as we know, remains a worthy goal, the report stresses. But many of the ways in which rules have been developed at the beginning of the space age have created costly and sometimes questionable efforts and, according to current scientific knowledge, make no sense, says Alan Stern, a Southwest Research Institute planetarist in Boulder, Colorado. led the 12-member panel that reviewed NASA's efforts. "From the perspective of the 1960s to the 1970s, we want to say that all of Mars was treated in one way." The planetary surfaces are more nuanced, he says.
Concerns about planetary protection have often shown that NASA has made great efforts to prevent microbes from space. The Mars robots are assembled in clean rooms, with many components baked in ovens or doused with chemicals. As you know, the Viking Landers were baked for Mars in the 1970s in purpose built ovens. However, these protective measures were often costly and, according to some scientists, overly burdensome.
The new report seems to repeat this view. Not only should NASA undergo strict spore counts, but only count microbes that can be bred in a laboratory (many can not) to determine life in their spacecraft, the report said. Modern techniques using genome sequencing to monitor cleanrooms are now available. These can be combined with probability risk analysis as to whether harmful contamination from another world is likely.
NASA should also rethink how it classifies the surfaces of the Moon and Mars, the report says. The entire Moon is now considered potentially interesting for exploring the origins of life, meaning that NASA does not want to contaminate it with imports from Earth. Few scientists today regard the moon as an important place to study such issues – except for its poles, where ice exists that could have helped sustain life. Reclassification of much of the lunar surface as not required for biological studies would simplify the exploration for NASA and other space agencies, along with commercial actors. Similarly, the report says most of Mars is treated as surviving microbes that land on its surface and are transported to regions that absorb water and replicate life. However, many scientists believe that the result is unlikely and should be reconsidered.
Because it is possible for humans to return to the Moon and reach Mars in the coming decades, NASA should also consider setting up two management zones on the bodies. The report adds. The first would create protected astrobiological zones considered essential for the study of a possible extinct or existing life. The second possibility would be exploration zones for people who would inevitably be exposed to the zoo by microbes that accompany humans everywhere.
NASA must also revise its guidelines for protecting the planets for the return of samples to Earth collected from their Mars 2020 rover. Earth has long been bombarded by meteorites from Mars without any biological damage. While it will continue to be important to prevent earth microbes from contaminating samples collected by Rover, the agency should reassess the risks that such samples could pose to life on Earth.
NASA is not a regulator, but in the face of increasing trade According to the report, interest in space must work with the Federal Aviation Administration and other federal agencies to find a way for commercial actors to include planetary protection in their development. This concern was fueled in particular by the Tesla Roadster, which SpaceX launched into space last year on the Falcon Heavy's first flight. The car received no planet protection rating prior to release in space.
The new report comes as NASA was already in a phase of changing its planetary policy. In 2017, the Agency relocated its Planetary Protection Office from its long-standing Science Department office to the Security and Mission Security Office, a site that is more concerned with translating protocols into engineering practice. And last year, she hired a new planetary protection chief, Lisa Pratt, who in the early weeks of her activity expressed openness to many of the ideas expressed in the new report.
Overall, the report reflects the Agency's reflections on this topic. says Thomas Zurbuchen, Deputy Administrator of NASA for Science. "We have a lot of momentum in the future as we modernize our approach," he says. In the future, NASA will seek to update its guidance more regularly, and discuss with other nations how to update the planet protection rules established internationally in the Space Treaty.
Overall, the report is a welcome development. says Alberto Fairén, a planetary researcher at Cornell University who is working to re-evaluate the guidelines for protecting the planets. However, one important point remains: if humans invariably contaminate Mars, should not the water-rich regions, which can best support life, be explored as quickly as possible? "This is the main problem of space exploration for our generation," he says, "because our children will see red footprints on Mars."