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NASA Expert Group Says We Don't Have To Be Careful When Contaminating Other Worlds



It's time to update the rules. This is the conclusion of a panel that looked at NASA's planetary protection rules. It was smart at the dawn of the space age to think how we inadvertently pollute other worlds with terrestrial germs as we survey the solar system. But now that we know much more than we did then, the rules do not fit.

The Bureau of Planetary Defense (PPO) addresses these rules and how they apply to spacecraft. Not only for NASA, but for other partner countries as well. The Planetary Independent Review Board (PPIRB) produced this new report. PPIRB was chaired by Alan Stern, a prominent American planetary scientist and principal investigator for NASA's New Horizons mission in Pluto.

Whenever humans send a spacecraft to another body, there is a risk of infecting this body with germs from Earth. Eliminating or reducing this risk is the only way to guarantee integrity in the search for life. It takes great pain to sterilize spacecraft, but the risk is never zero. Spacecraft are prepared in sterile clean rooms before launch, and in the 1

970s Viking landscapes were sterilized in huge ovens built specifically for this purpose.

  Viking landscapes are sterilized in a specially designed oven to prevent contamination. Mars. Credit: NASA
The Viking landscapes were sterilized in a purpose-built oven to prevent contamination of Mars. Image Credit: NASA

Conversely, we must protect Earth from all unwanted visitors who may return to visit us on one of our spacecraft. It may sound like something science fiction, but since we still don't know what germs may exist on Mars, Enceladus or another world, we need to protect ourselves from Earth pollution.

The Planetary Protection Service assists in the construction of sterile spacecraft or what they call a low biological load spacecraft. They also help develop low-risk flight plans that help protect other bodies as well as the Earth. OPP also helps to develop a working space policy to achieve their goals.

But is it really necessary?

According to this new report, with more and more space exploration and more countries and trade participants, the old set of rules may need to be updated.

"The landscape for planetary protection is moving very fast. It's exciting now that for the first time many different players are able to consider missions of commercial and scientific interest to organs in our solar system, "said Thomas Zurbbuchen, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate." We want to be prepared in this new environment with thoughtful and practical policies that enable us to make scientific discoveries and preserve the integrity of our planet and the places we visit. "

Many standards were introduced in the 1960s and 1970s. Moon and Mars, most often visited The whole lunar surface was initially classified as important for the study of the origin of life, but this did not hold up and now not many scientists consider the moon very significant in this study. At least not everything.

poles play a role in life history as they have long-lasting deposits of water, but according to PPIRB, there is no reason to think that the rest of the moon does, according to them different regions of the moon must have different standards of protection.

The Moon and the Moon Portal are probably points of future missions to Mars. Is there any risk of cross contamination between the two? What about when spacecraft return samples to Earth, as will the Mars 2020 Rover?

  NASA engineers working on a rover 2020 rover sampling mechanism. What protection is needed when these samples return to Earth? Image Credit: NASA
NASA Engineers Working on the Mars 2020 Rover Sampling Mechanism What protection is required when these samples return to Earth? Image Credit: NASA

The reality is that material from Mars has been transferred to Earth in orders of magnitude greater than anyone can ever make. There has been a natural flow of Martian material to Earth for billions of years as meteors strike Mars and send debris into space. Some of these debris have landed on Earth. The PPIRB stated that the overall risk of pollution of the Earth by Martian materials should be reviewed.

"In particular, the risk of adverse effects of Martian material on the Earth's biosphere must be reassessed in the light of the ongoing, established, natural transport of Martian material to Earth."

PPIRB Report, 2019. [19659019] PPIRB does not propose that all precautions be removed. One of their recommendations is to build a special Martian sampling facility. In their report, they call it the Mars Sampling Facility (MSRF.) This is not only for scientific reasons, but also to convince people that appropriate precautions are being taken.

"Considerable efforts are being made in MSR architectures to ensure that no harmful interference is caused to the Earth's biosphere. "

PPIRB Report, 2019.

From the PPIRB Report:" As the first limited return to Earth after Apollo, MSR will be a unique mission. Significant efforts are being made in MSR architectures to ensure that no to cause harmful interference to the Earth's biosphere This includes NASA's work (along with international partners) to "break the contact chain" with the environment of Mars during Mars 2020 sampling procedures, sampling and procedures to return to orbit to return to Earth. "

Part of the effort for an act Planetary protection rules are being driven by practical realities, and there will be more and more commercial activities in space, and these endeavors need effective and streamlined rules to work with.

"Planetary Sciences and Techniques for Protecting the Planet have changed rapidly in recent years and both are likely to continue to develop rapidly, "Stern said in a press release. "Planetary protection guidelines and practices need to be updated to reflect our new knowledge and new technologies and the emergence of new entities planning missions to the solar system. This topic is of global interest and we also need to look at how new players, for example in the commercial sector, can be integrated into planetary defense. "

  MSL Curiosity is busy exploring the surface of Mars to see if this planet could have life. Image: NASA / JPL / Cal-Tech
MSL Curiosity is busy exploring the surface of Mars to see if this planet can have life. The rover was sterilized before it went to Mars, but an error meant the sterilization was not complete. Image: NASA / JPL / Cal-Tech

Recent developments in Mars support the revision of planetary protection rules. Currently MSL Curiosity rover is seven years from its mission. Its purpose is to assess whether Mars has ever had an environment to support the life of germs. He does this by exploring the Gale Crater and slowly working his way up Mt. Sharp, or Aeolis Mons.

Curiosity passed along some cliffs with dark stripes on them, and curiosity scholars pointed out that the stripes were probably water, perhaps seasonal infiltrations. Some of the Curiosity team wanted to investigate the stripes. But the Planetary Protection Service was concerned about the possibility of polluting these windows. Although Curiosity was sterilized on Earth, with some parts baked at 110 C for almost a week, moving the drill to the Rover robotic frame after sterilization violated the Planetary Defense protocols. Staff at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory responsible for MSL Curiosity were dissatisfied.

  These dark stripes, called Repetitive Slope Lines (RSL), look like seasonal algae, a great place for Curiosity to explore Mars' habitat. But the Planetary Protection Service thought otherwise. Image Credit: NASA / JPL-CALTECH / UNIV. ARIZONA
These dark stripes, called Recurring Slope Lines (RSL), look like seasonal water intrusions, a great place for Curiosity to explore Mars' habitat. But the Planetary Protection Service thought otherwise. Image Credit: NASA / JPL-CALTECH / UNIV. ON ARIZONA

The ocean moons in our solar system are also future targets in the search for life, especially Europe and Enceladus. What kinds of protection should they get when our spacecraft visits them? The PPIRB report addresses this issue.

"The proportion of terrestrial microorganisms in biological load on spacecraft that has the potential to survive and expand in the oceans is likely to be extremely small."

PPIRB Report, 2019. [19659022] As they say in the report, "The proportion of terrestrial microorganisms in the biological load of spacecraft that has the potential to survive and expand in the oceans is likely to be extremely small." The report goes on to say that some local root life of Enceladus is almost unlikely , Europe or even Titan has the same origin as life on Earth and that there is no way scientists will separate them.

  Artist's impression of a hypothetical ocean cryobot (robot capable of penetrating water ice) in Europe. According to the PPIRB report, there is almost no risk of infecting Europe with terrestrial germs and the protocols need to be updated. Credit: NASA
Artist's impression of a hypothetical ocean cryobot (robot capable of penetrating water ice) in Europe. According to the PPIRB report, there is almost no risk of infecting Europe with terrestrial germs and the protocols need to be updated. Credit: NASA

"Any such life could easily be distinguished from terrestrial microorganisms using modern biochemical techniques. As a result of these findings, the current biological load requirements for Europe and Enceladus missions (ie <1 viable micro-organism) appear unnecessarily conservative. "

NASA received the report from the PPIRB and intends to develop new protocols. The surface of Mars and the moon are likely to be divided into zones. Some will be considered more important in the search for life and stricter guidelines will be applied. Others will be less restrictive.

But there is another angle in all this. Since every Mars mission has an inherent risk of contaminating this planet with terrestrial germs, should we not be sure that we will be exploring potentially life-threatening areas sooner rather than later? If so, we will need updated protocols sooner than we might think.

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