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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.

Go deeper

Miriam Kramer, author of Space
Jan 26, 2021 - Science

Investment in the space industry overcame the pandemic's headwinds in 2020

A SpaceX launch in 2020. Photo: SpaceX

Investment in the space industry continued to grow in the last quarter of 2020, despite the coronavirus pandemic, according to a new report from Space Capital.

Why it matters: The space industry turned out to be far more robust in the face of the pandemic than many experts were initially expecting.

New York AG alleges "significant evidence" of Trump Organization fraud

Combination images of former President Trump and New York State Attorney General Letitia James. Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images; Scott Heins/Getty Images

New York's attorney general filed a motion Tuesday seeking to compel former President Trump and two of his children, Donald Trump, Jr. and Ivanka Trump, to appear for sworn testimony in her office's civil investigation into the Trump Organization's financial dealings.

Why it matters: Attorney General Letitia James revealed new details in the court filing and a statement on her office's investigation into the Trump Organization's business practices, including a preliminary finding alleging the company used "fraudulent and misleading asset valuations to obtain economic benefits."

2 hours ago - Technology

Ex-N.Y. Post digital chief files lawsuit alleging sexual harassment

Richard B. Levine) (Photo by Richard Levine/Corbis via Getty Images

Former New York Post editor Michelle Gotthelf is suing her former employer, its parent company News Corp. and two editors, alleging she was reprimanded after complaining to senior executives that she was sexually harassed by retired N.Y. Post editor-in-chief Col Allan. The N.Y. Post issued a statement denying any wrongdoing.

Why it matters: "I felt that I owed it to myself and I owed it to the news organization and the people who answered to me," Gotthelf, who was a long time editor at the N.Y. Post, told Axios in an interview.

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