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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.

Updated 3 hours ago - World

Reports: Up to 17 U.S. missionaries kidnapped in Haiti

Haitian soldiers guard the public prosecutor's office in Port-au-Prince earlier this month. Photo: Richard Pierrin/AFP via Getty Images

Children were among up to 17 American Christian missionaries and their relatives kidnapped by a gang in Haiti on Saturday, the New York Times first reported.

Details: The missionaries had just left an orphanage and were traveling by bus to the airport to "drop off some members" and were due to travel to another destination when the gang struck in Port-au-Prince, Haitian security officials said, per the NYT.

4 hours ago - World

Melbourne, "world's most locked-down city," to lift stay-at-home orders

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews during a news conference in Melbourne, Australia, on Sunday. Photo: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

Melbourne's stay-at-home orders will end five days earlier than planned, officials in Australia's second-biggest city announced Sunday.

Why it matters: The capital of the state of Victoria has had six lockdowns totaling 262 days since March last year. That means Melbourne spent longer under lockdown than "any other city in the world" during the pandemic, Reuters notes.

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