Earthrise. Photo: NASA

NASA is loosening some of its guidelines around how to best protect the Moon and Mars from contamination by Earthly microbes that could be introduced by robotic and human missions.

Why it matters: Planetary protection measures are designed to help make sure that, if scientists ever do find life on another world, it isn't just our own microbes that got a toehold elsewhere after hitching a ride to distant space.

Driving the news: NASA introduced two new planetary protection directives last week focusing on the Moon and Mars that are the result of years of study, including a report released in 2019 that urged NASA to relax these guidelines.

Details: The new, more lenient guidelines are designed to open up new avenues for research and exploration while reflecting current scientific best practices for planetary protection.

  • And it's not one size fits all. Under the new guidance, much of the Moon will now be classified as "Category 1," instead of "Category 2," which means there will be no specific restrictions for planetary protection around many of the human or robotic missions to the Moon launching in the coming years.
  • However, some parts of the Moon will still remain Category 2 in order to protect sites, including icy craters, that have even a small probability of supporting life.
  • "We need to make sure that when we go to the Moon, we're protecting those very important scientific sites where there is a risk of harmfully ... powerfully contaminating the Moon from a biological perspective," NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said during an event announcing the changes.

Planetary protection measures for Mars, on the other hand, will remain the same under a second directive, with stringent protocols for robotic missions launching from Earth to limit microbes heading to the Red Planet, but will allow for future human missions.

What to watch: The Mars directive calls on NASA to continue updating its guidelines as data is collected that can help scientists learn more about whether certain parts of the world are habitable.

  • “The challenge with Mars is that we simply don’t yet have enough information to know where it is we can go and where we shouldn’t go and where we can go, but we need to be more careful than other places," Bridenstine added.

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