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Changing how we protect other planets in the solar system

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

NASA should consider relaxing some of its guidelines governing how to prevent the contamination of planetary bodies during robotic and human missions, according to a report released Friday.

Why it matters: NASA wants to be sure that if life is eventually found elsewhere in our solar system, it isn’t the result of contamination from our own world.

  • Planetary protection guidelines are designed to guard against that kind of contamination and protect our own planet from possible contamination as well.

Where it stands: The report from NASA's Planetary Protection Independent Review Board suggests NASA should consider reclassifying parts of the Moon and Mars to better reflect what scientists now understand about the worlds and their suitability for life.

  • Less stringent planetary protection standards would, in theory, break down barriers for commercial or other missions to land on planetary surfaces while still protecting those worlds.
  • Research into how best to protect planetary objects from contamination has advanced in recent years and that should be reflected in NASA’s rules, argue the report's authors.
“We want to move from the '60s, ‘70s point of view that all of Mars should be treated precisely one way and all of each world should be treated one way to this more nuanced view, where we differentiate between different sites on the surface in order to enable more science to be done."
— Alan Stern, head of the independent review board, during a press briefing