Scientists propose changes to planetary protection rules

Genesis cover

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In a new report [pdf], a panel of scientists have proposed major revisions to NASA’s policy for protecting other planets from contamination by Earth biology.

In general, the recommendations seem an effort to streamline the rules (first established in the 1960s), while also making them more reflective of present knowledge. For example, the report says the following,

NASA should also rethink how it classifies the surfaces of the Moon and Mars, the report says. All of the Moon is now classified as potentially of interest to research on the origins of life, meaning NASA doesn’t want to contaminate it with imports from Earth. But few scientists now view the Moon as an important site for studying such questions—except for its poles, where ice that might have helped sustain life exists. Reclassifying much of the Moon’s surface as nonessential for biological studies would simplify exploration for NASA and other space agencies—along with commercial actors. Similarly, the report says, much of Mars has been treated as if microbes that landed on its surface could survive and be transported to regions thought to host water and allow the replication of life. But many scientists think that outcome is unlikely and worth rethinking.

Because it’s possible that humans could return to the Moon, and arrive on Mars, in the next few decades, NASA should also think about establishing two management zones on the bodies, the report adds. The first would create protected astrobiology zones considered essential for the exploration of possible extinct or existing life. The second would be human exploration zones that invariably would be exposed to the zoo of microbes that accompany humans anywhere they go.

The report also recommends changes to the rules governing samples returned from other words that would streamline the process as well as tailor it more closely to present knowledge. It also recommends that the rules be better written to accommodate and encourage private enterprise in space.

All in all this appears to be a remarkably intelligent report, quite unlike what I expected. Almost always such reports from government instituted panels demand more stringent rules and greater governmental power. This report appears to call for exactly the opposite, while suggesting reasonable restrictions to protect both the Earth and any alien life that might be on other worlds.


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  • J Fincannon

    What I find concerning about the report is that it states “This final report, which we note has no non-consensus elements.” and that “The PPIRB was charged to complete its work in an approximately 90-day timeframe spanning July to September 2019.”

    As with the Climate Change issue, Supreme Court rulings and Science in general, there are two sides to these issues. It is hard to conceive of a group of people having the same ideas about this topic unless the participants were already on that side.

    I recall the scientific discussions of the benefits/dangers of returning Mars samples directly to the Earth. Where did that dialogue go? Unless the goal is to ignore all that and just plow ahead, full speed. 90 days seems hard to boil down everything done in the past decades in this issue.

    This report should at least have addressed the minority side opinions (if any???) and gave cogent explanations of why these contrary opinions were of no merit in the “consensus”.

    Serious reporters somewhere should look into each of the participants and understand their pre-report opinion and whether they “signed off” on it. Time-consuming? Yes. But it is a little more fleshed out background and rationale than this Report.

  • wayne

    The Andromeda Strain
    Trailer 1971

  • J Fincannon: I am curious if you yourself have any other differences of opinion about this report, other than wondering about the issue of returning Mars samples to Earth.

  • J Fincannon

    Robert Zimmerman: I am no expert in this area. I am also not really an astrobiology proponent. But I can see how astrobiologists might be a little concerned about contaminating Mars since this is their area of science. I have seen good arguments how it not a big deal and we could easily differentiate Earth from Mars life. Still, I would prefer it if we did a more thorough robotic analysis of extant life on Mars before going there and landing Teslas.

    The Major Finding about Martian material being transported over billions of years to Earth, “PP risk requirements… lack a fully rational basis considering this history”, sounds highly biased. I can show you reports by scientists on how long statistically it takes for something to travel between Mars and Earth and how much solar and galactic radiation, thermal/temperature in space, desiccation via vacuum, acceleration/temperature/thermal shock impact at takeoff and landing from Mars and onto Earth can impact the viability of presumed organisms from Mars to Earth. As opposed to an Express Trip from Mars to Earth in a nice, safe, 1st class environment.

    As to their Major Recommendation about most locations on and inside the Moon being not relevant to questions of the chemical evolution leading to or the origin of life, I see this as a rather presumptuous statement. How far did the Apollo dig for the heat flow experiment? A few meters. Are these guys smart or prescient enough to understand not only the entire inside of the Moon but also all the surface sites outside the few Apollo ones?

    Same for Mars. Again, they want to edit PP guidelines/Categories based on incomplete knowledge. I say land a bunch more robots, gather data, then make up revisions. I guess they have calculated all the uncertainties, too (unknown unknowns). Do they understand how Earth microbes could be carried by wind? How about other mechanisms we aren’t smart enough to figure out?

    As to their Major Finding about human missions to Mars, they do not seem to consider alternatives such as manned orbiting vehicles controlling robots, maybe even from a Phobos base to do the same. Maybe that’s too much like Gateway for some.

    They also have a Supporting Recommendation that the multi-month human return trajectory from Mars be used in lieu of terrestrial quarantine. So, somehow, they know that this will be enough. What if the organism that the Mars astronaut ingested is dormant for 1 year until it comes forth? Maybe it is no problem and the organism dies. Or maybe not.

    So, all I ask for is balance and showing both sides. I do not ask for a tally of the votes on each side.

  • pzatchok

    If I had the power I would purposely contaminate mars and end this problem for ever.

    This will end the next hundred years of arguments and save billions in decontamination procedures for every object going to Mars.

    They are finding Earth microbes on the outside of the ISS.
    I bet they will find the same thing ob EVERY object sent from Earth into the vest reaches of space. That is right, there is a very very good possibility someone has already contaminated Mars years ago. And as soon as we put people there it will happen. We cannot decontaminate every pressure door every time we open it to the outside of Mars.

    Just positively do it and get it done with already.

  • wayne

    Good stuff.

    pivoting a bit….

    Rand Simberg
    Property Rights
    21st Annual International Mars Society Convention
    September 2019

  • J Fincannon

    I am not so concerned about astrobiology. If there is life on Mars, evolution would have tuned it to that ecological niche. Earth life brought by humans or spacecraft would have a hard time adapting. Also, it is possible to differentiate between Mars and Earth DNA/molecules, according to some scientists. What I am more concerned about is the negative effects of Mars life on humans, particularly if they come back to Earth. Likely we need to land a biological test lab to expose Earth life to Mars environment and see how that affects them. Should have done this for Apollo before landing.

  • wayne

    J Fincannon-
    Good stuff, as well.

    Wildfire intro
    Andromeda Strain (1971)

  • J Fincannon: I want to point out that if Earth life will have a hard time adapting to the Martian environment, the reverse is also true for Martian life on Earth.

    In truth, the threat of alien life I think is greatly overrated, the result of people watching too many science fiction movies in the past six decades.

  • J Fincannon

    The problem with this logic is that we know alto about Earth life and nothing about Mars life. While sweet innocent Mars microbes likely would cause no problems for astronauts or Earth, I am worried about unknown Mars life forms with unknown behaviors. Best to check into this a bit before running into a wall to get to the Mars surface with people. A nice biolander that exposes Earth critters to the Mars environment could do this (ala Andromeda Strain testing facility). Prefer to do it on Mars than on Earth. Should have done it before landing on the Moon in Apollo ….. they really took risks those days!

  • pzatchok

    So the only real problem is stuff coming back to Earth.

    For people and animals let them stay in orbit decontaminating and in quarantine for 30 days.

    As for materials make the return landing area a remote island in the middle of the sea. Anything needed can be done there. Mostly safe.

  • wayne

    [One can never watch too many science fiction movies! (quality, is an entirely different matter)]

    From a functional standpoint, anything ‘biologic’ that can survive space travel and entry through our atmosphere, has already happened.( and vice-versa, so to speak )
    –a more dangerous route would be to physically concentrate an off world ‘organism’ and intentionally bring it back to Earth.

    Invasion Of The Body Snatchers
    (1956) trailer

  • J Fincannon

    pzatchok: “For people and animals let them stay in orbit decontaminating and in quarantine for 30 days. As for materials make the return landing area a remote island in the middle of the sea. Anything needed can be done there. Mostly safe.”

    So 30 days is the limit? Based on what? The report says just to use the transit time between Mars and Earth. In any event, this is based on zilch information. A basis of estimate would help.

    Wayne: “From a functional standpoint, anything ‘biologic’ that can survive space travel and entry through our atmosphere, has already happened.( and vice-versa, so to speak )”

    What is the point of this statement? Of course if it can survive space travel and entry through our atmosphere then it already has happened. The contention is that biologicals from Mars cannot survive space travel and entry into Earth’s atmosphere. This is unlike Zubrin’s statement that Mars microbes are analogous to geese from Canada. Geese do not have to travel through radiation, freezing temps, vacuum and survive launch and landing shock and temps. Those would be really cooked gooses.

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