NASA Needs to Update Its Rules to Keep Our Solar System Clean

NASA published a response to the Planetary Protection Recommendations, and aims to rethink its approach to ensure cleaner and safer missions.

NASA has been following the same guidelines to prevent contamination spreading from space onto our planet for the past 50 years.

In response to the planetary protection recommendations that had been made in 2018 by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine NASA published a new report last Thursday. The recommendations state that with NASA's ambitious and ever-evolving solar system exploration, new planetary safety guidelines need to be drawn up and adhered to.

An update to these rules is long overdue, and so it's better late than never. 

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What is planetary protection?

Planetary protection is meant to prevent or minimize biological contamination in our solar system. The aim is to limit the number of microbes we send into space and to other planets, so as to ensure we're able to study these areas in their natural habitats. 

It's not all about protecting other planets and studies in space, though. Planetary protection is also meant to protect our Earth from outside contaminants.

Currently, NASA and other space exploration agencies operate under the rules of a 50-year-old document, the Outer Space Treaty. Some regulations are vague and unhelpful at this stage in our current space exploration programs. 

Due to this, NASA follows COSPAR's, also known as the Committee on Space Research, method of cleaning germs from their spacecraft. Depending on where spacecraft are heading to, COSPAR sets out very specific cleaning rules for each one of them. 

However, these rules are not legally binding, and strictly speaking, they're not enforced. 

More complex space exploration programs underway

With new and more complicated space missions in the making, the rules of planetary protection need to be updated in order to keep up. 

NASA plans on sending a spacecraft to Jupiter's Moon, Europa, as well as sending its new Artemis missions to the Moon as early as 2024. There's also the Mars Rovers' 2020 sample return mission, the drone mission to explore Saturn's moon, Titan, as well as delving underground on Saturn's other moon, Enceladus.

NASA Needs to Update Its Rules to Keep Our Solar System Clean
Part of NASA's Mars 2020 mission, the carousel contains all of the tools the coring drill uses to sample the Martian surface and is the gateway for the samples to move into the rover for assessment and processing. Source: NASA

Furthermore, commercial companies such as SpaceX are also working on their own space exploration programs. For instance, SpaceX plans to set up research bases on Mars.

These new and exciting planetary explorations are being worked on, so new cleaning protections must be put in place for everyone's safety.

The issue of 'forward contamination,' which is when spacecraft inadvertently send earthly microbes or life to other planets, is important to consider. However, the report strongly suggests that a lot of thought goes into 'backward contamination.' This, on the other hand, is when extraterrestrial microbes are brought down to Earth. 

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"Planetary science and planetary protection techniques have both changed rapidly in recent years, and both will likely continue to evolve rapidly," said Allen Stern, co-author of the new report and a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute, in NASA's press release.

Stern continued, "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 across the solar system. There is global interest in this topic, and we also need to address how new players, for example, in the commercial sector, can be integrated into planetary protection." 

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