NASA Updates Planetary Protection Policies for Space Travel to the Moon and Mars

The agency is trying to keep a balance between the science community, the commercial one, and human exploration.
Fabienne Lang
The Moon, Earth, and MarsNASA

As human spaceflight forges forwards, NASA is attempting to protect the Moon, Mars — and Earth — from any contamination by introducing two new directives.

On Thursday, the American space agency unveiled the new NASA Interim Directives (NIDs) that lay out the new requirements for human and robotic missions to and from the Moon, Mars, and Earth. 


Protecting Earth and beyond

The point of the new directives is to protect these planetary bodies from potential biological contamination coming from Earth and ultimately that could lead to compromised scientific research. 

One of the NIDs focuses on potential forward biological contamination, which is brought from Earth to another planetary object, and ultimately to the Moon. 

The second NID deals with Mars and looks at both forward and backward contamination, which includes contamination brought back to Earth from another cosmic body too. 

"We're trying to balance the interests of the science community, the interest of the human exploration community, and the interest of the commercial community," said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine

It's important to leave "a pristine environment so we have the ability to know that what we discover in the future was not something that was left there by us …," continued Bridenstine.

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"We have to make sure that we are inventorying every kind of biological substance and even nonbiological substance — organics for example — that could leave something behind on the moon that could be problematic for future research."

In speaking of the missions to the Moon, Associate Administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Thomas Zurbuchen, stated "These sites have immense scientific value in shaping our understanding of the history of our planet, the moon, and the solar system."

Currently, neither of the two NIDs is set in stone. These are interim directives and not policy ones, so there is still room for changes when the need arises down the road. 

As Bridenstine said himself "It's probably going to be modified a lot of times now and into the future." 

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