A new policy paper from the National Academies has proposed reducing the planetary protection rules for some future Mars missions, concluding that Earth life cannot survive on Mars for long, and as long as a lander or rover does not land close to cave entrances or on extensive ice, the need to decontaminate is significantly reduced. From the press release:
In this report, the Committee focused on regions on Mars that might not be negatively impacted if visited by spacecraft that are not stringently sterilized. For missions that do not access the subsurface, such regions could include a significant portion of the surface of Mars, because the UV environment is so biocidal that terrestrial organisms are, in most cases, not likely to survive more than one to two sols, or Martian days. For missions that access the subsurface (down to 1 meter), regions on Mars expected to have patchy or no water ice below the surface might also be visited by spacecraft more relaxed bioburden requirements, because such patchy ice is likely not conducive to the proliferation of terrestrial microorganisms.
The report finds that it is imperative that any mission sent to Mars with reduced bioburden requirements remain some conservative distance from any subsurface access points, such as cave openings. Furthermore, though less stringent than current requirements, these missions with relaxed bioburden requirements would still need some level of cleanliness, which could be achieved for instance using standard aerospace cleanliness practices.
The report essentially concluded that missions to Mars’ dry equatorial regions as well as its glacial mid-latitudes pose no risk to contaminating the red planet with Earth life.
While the press release pushes the idea that this is a reduction in the planetary protection rules, it could be seen in a much worse light. Based on the proposed rules, missions to the Martian poles or higher latitudes, where ice is extensive and not “patchy,” might be entirely forbidden. This will significantly limit Martian exploration by the United States. Meanwhile, China and Russia and others will be faced with no such restrictions.
Note too that this report likely forbids SpaceX from landing its Starship in the company’s candidate landing sites, all of which are in the northern lowland plains ranging from 35 to 40 degrees north latitude. This region is thought to have extensive ice sheets very close to the surface. To land there, the rules proposed will either require extremely strict and very costly decontamination procedures, many of which do not even exist as yet, or will forbid landing there at all.
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