Jan 5, 2021 - Science

White House lays out new planetary protection guidelines against human contamination

Picture of Mars as seen by the Curiosity rover.

Mars as seen by the Curiosity rover. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The White House laid out a plan last week for updating long-held rules around how to protect the Moon, Mars and other bodies from human contamination.

Why it matters: If a space agency or private company is looking for life on Mars or another deep space object, it's key to be sure any microbes detected are actually native and didn't hitch a ride from Earth.

What's happening: The new planetary protection national strategy will lay the groundwork for scientists to help update planetary protection guidelines over the next year. Objectives of the strategy:

  • Update the review process for payloads heading to space.
  • Develop rules around backward contamination to protect against the possibility of extraterrestrial life contaminating Earth.
  • Work with private companies to get feedback on how planetary protection might affect their work.

Background: In 2020, NASA loosened some of its restrictions around planetary protection on the Moon.

  • Instead of using a one-size-fits-all approach, NASA reclassified much of the Moon so that there are no specific planetary protection concerns for missions going to certain parts of the lunar surface.
  • Protections for Mars remain intact to prevent any contamination of the Martian surface, and some parts of the Moon still have protected status.

The bottom line: “We’re very fine with what NASA has done, but the problem is that the NASA rules and interim directives don’t really apply to the private sector,” an administration official told SpaceNews.

  • By having planetary protection policies laid out by the White House and incorporated into the payload review process, private companies will also need to comply with them.
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