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A new era of planetary protection

Efforts at Mars sample return, starting with the Mars 2020 rover (above), present new challenges for planetary protection. (credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Last year, NASA got a lot of unexpected media attention when it announced it was looking to hire a new planetary protection officer. The public, and mainstream media, seemed amused by the idea that NASA wanted to hire someone whose title suggested they would be charged with protecting the planet from aliens or whatnot. The space community shrugged and sighed, noting that the position was not new, and that person’s responsibilities were focused as much as protecting the planets from us, in the form of terrestrial contamination of potentially habitable worlds, as it was protecting the Earth from any extraterrestrial life.

The position, though, was changing. The planetary protection officer has previously been in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, but under this change was moving to the Office of Safety and Mission Assurance (OSMA). The new officer, Lisa Pratt, formerly an astrobiologist at Indiana University, started on the job in February.

“That’s not just symbolic. It’s a really change in the way we’ll be operating,” she said of the move of the position to OSMA during a presentation at the Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group (MEPAG) meeting earlier this month near Washington. “That is a group that has a very clear process and protocol, and we’ll be gradually—probably over a period of about two years—figuring out how to make planetary protection fit into that office.”

Pratt spoke at MEPAG because of the importance of planetary protection to future Mars missions and the search for past or present life there. That involves missions not directly involved in the search for life, like the InSight Mars Lander mission scheduled to launch this Saturday, landing on the planet in late November to study the planet’s interior.

At the meeting, she said her team was closely monitoring the cleanliness of the spacecraft as well as the two cubesats, known as MarCO, that will fly with it and serve as a data relay as InSight lands. “We’re looking at that very carefully so that we, again, learn more about the cleanliness during pre-launch activities,” she said. “I think we’ve been a little asleep at the switch with regard to that, and really allowed the launch vehicle folks to control the environment that our spacecraft are in.”

“We spend enormous amounts of money keeping everything clean, and then we expose ourselves to a fair amount of atmospheric material often in the last period of time before we launch,” she added.

Pratt said she was “surprised” by the rise of cubesats, like the MarCO spacecraft hitching a ride with InSight. “We need to think very carefully, as the planetary protection office, about how those additions to major missions might impact the mission,” she said. That includes, she said, how those cubesats are produced and how they’re integrated onto the launch vehicle.

Future Mars missions, though, pose greater planetary protection challenges, and in both directions. Mars 2020 will cache samples of Martian regolith and rocks that will be return to Earth on future, albeit as-yet-defined, missions later in the decade. Pratt said she was looking at sterilization protocols for that mission, including how the sample tubes will remain free of contamination.

There are also challenges beyond Mars, most notably Europa. NASA is developing the Europa Clipper spacecraft that will perform multiple flybys of the icy, potentially habitable moon, and that requires planetary protection in the event the spacecraft should accidentally collide with the planet.

A lander mission is also in the early stages of development, which creates even bigger planetary protection issues. “It’s one thing to be clean on Mars,” she said. “I think many of us are losing sleep at night thinking about the possibility of how clean we’d have to be to feel good about bringing a landed vehicle down on the surface of Europa.”

The human exploration of Mars brings with it its own planetary protection tensions. “If we’re going to find out whether or not there’s present-day life on Mars before we bring large, dirty, microbial-rich humans to the planet, we’re running out of time,” she argued.

While some Mars exploration advocates have suggested that human explorers will be needed to determine, once and for all, if Mars was or is inhabited, she said that the presence of humans will make that much harder to figure out.

“I think it’s a gamechanger,” she said of humans on Mars. “I think it’s a different era. Once we have humans there, despite all of our best intentions, we’re going to have trouble preventing the human microbiome from being expressed on the planet.”

She added that she felt it was unlikely that human-induced contamination could be limited to the landing site thanks to the planet’s winds and dust. “I think everything we want to do without that signature there we have to do in the next decade or two,” she said.

An additional issue is the role of planetary protection in regards to commercial missions. At the MEPAG meeting, and some earlier presentations since taking over the job, Pratt suggested that there was little coordination with SpaceX on its launch of a Tesla Roadster on the inaugural Falcon Heavy launch in February. That launched placed the sports car and its upper stage into a heliocentric orbit that will take it past Mars, but with no close approaches that pose a collision risk for the foreseeable future.

“We had a demonstration that sort of slipped through our fingers in terms about thinking about planetary protection,” she said at the MEPAG meeting, an apparent reference to that launch. In previous presentations, she said that NASA supported that launch, but without a planetary protection plan in place.

That cooperation with commercial ventures is important, she said, as companies like SpaceX plan their own Mars missions in the years to come. “We need to build understanding and collaboration with the commercial space businesses to ensure the scientific integrity of Mars as long as possible in the run-up to the arrival of humans,” she said.

In her MEPAG talk, she noted NASA was participating in a new planetary protection working group established by the Committee on Space Research, or COSPAR, to evaluate planetary protection guidelines with a particular emphasis on the collection and return of Martian samples. “We have a very strong continued commitment to meeting COSPAR policies on all missions with NASA participation and technical support,” she said.

Interestingly, language in a House commercial space bill passed last week would undermine that commitment, at least for commercial missions. “Guidelines promulgated by the Committee on Space Research may not be considered international obligations of the United States,” states a provision of the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act (HR 2809), in a section regarding certification of commercial missions not licensed by other federal agencies.

In the floor debate on the bill, one member raised a concern about that. “There are several aspects of HR 2809 that deserve further discussion,” said Rep. Ami Bera (D-CA), ranking member of the space subcommittee of the House Science Committee. That includes, he said, “making sure that relevant government expertise and measures to prevent harmful contamination of planetary surfaces are taken into account.”

That bill’s future is uncertain, but Pratt said she’s committed to ensuring planetary protection remains in place, even after humans arrive on Mars. “It’s just going to be a different era,” she said when asked at the MEPAG meeting if landing humans on Mars marked the end of planetary protection there. “Our expectations have to be different.”


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