After years of debate, NASA plans to update its guidelines on how much biological contamination other worlds will allow while the agency is researching the solar system. The new rules would relax some of the agency’s requirements for moon and Mars exploration – two high-profile targets to which NASA plans to send astronauts in the coming years.
For decades, NASA has followed fairly strict rules about how much biological contamination is considered acceptable when the agency sends probes – or humans – to other planets. It’s a concept known as planetary protection, and it has a legal basis in a contract that was signed over 50 years ago. The so-called space treaty calls on nations to explore other worlds “to avoid their harmful contamination”
A major goal of planetary protection was to prevent us from tracking microbes in the entire solar system. That way, if we came across some kind of life form in another world, we would know for sure that it actually came The World and that we didn’t put it there on accident. Planetary protection also focuses on human safety. If a country does Find life, we want to make sure it doesn’t wipe us out when they bring it back to our planet.
Sticking to planetary protection has always been a compromise, since practically everything we send into space contains a kind of microbe. Depending on where they move in the solar system, spacecraft are often subjected to very strict cleaning procedures to get rid of these tiny organisms. For some, this means baking at high temperatures to kill microbes and make vehicles as flawless as possible.
But now NASA is particularly focused on sending people back into space. And when people go into space, we carry tons of bacteria with us no matter how much we clean. Because human research is such a high priority, NASA now wants to rethink some of the stricter requirements for the Moon and Mars – otherwise human research would be too difficult to do. Today, NASA released two new “preliminary guidelines” that contain possible changes to the guidelines for the exploration of the Moon and Mars. The space community has been pushing for years to update these rules.
“We need to rethink these guidelines because we can’t go to Mars with people if the principle we live by is that we can’t have microbial substances with us,” said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine during a webinar the new proposed changes. “Because that’s just not possible.”
The first guideline is about reclassifying parts of the moon so there are fewer restrictions on sending spaceships and people there. According to the current rules for protecting the planets, the moon is considered a category II celestial body, which means that there is a “rare probability that the contamination transmitted by a spaceship could endanger future missions”. The moon got this name after scientists discovered that there might be a lot of water ice lurking on the surface of the moon. And if there is water anywhere in the solar system, scientists are always cautious about whether it can sustain some kind of life.
The new provisional directive would largely classify the moon as a Category I body that does not require planetary protection requirements as there is no expectation of finding life. But NASA would still think about it Parts of the moon – especially craters where water ice is believed to exist – as Category II sites. “We have to make sure that when we go to the moon we protect the very important scientific sites where there is a risk that the moon will be biological Visually contaminated, “said Bridenstine.
One of these places is the South Pole of the Moon, which is believed to contain quite a bit of water ice in its craters, which are permanently shaded. “You can go there under Category II, but we just need to be very careful to inventory all of the biology that we might take with us,” said Bridenstine.
The second guideline would update the Mars rules to allow human missions in the future. At the moment, Mars is a fairly restricted planet. It is a Category IV facility for countries, which means that there is a great interest in finding life there and a significant risk of contamination. In the meantime, parts of the planet – where there may be liquid water – are even more restricted and require more intensive guidelines. NASA does not recommend changing the name of Mars. However, the preliminary guideline calls on the agency to develop new guidelines based on what we are learning about Mars from upcoming missions such as the Perseverance Rover, which will launch this summer. “The challenge with Mars is that we simply don’t have enough information to know where to go, where to go, and where to go, but we need to be more careful than anywhere else,” said Bridenstine . He added: “We will continue to refine, make adjustments and then open it as much as possible so that more people have more access. I should say more missions. “
According to Bridenstine, these new preliminary guidelines should be malleable. “These are not guidelines. They are not set in stone, ”he said.
These new guidelines are the latest in a series of changes and new guidelines NASA is creating to return to the moon through its Artemis program. In May, NASA announced the creation of the Artemis Agreement, a series of international standards for moon research that it hopes other countries will follow. “As the community of nations progresses to the moon and further to Mars, we need to make sure that the United States is leading through NASA and its policies, and that’s exactly what we’re trying to do here,” said Bridenstine.