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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 12, 2021 - Science

InSight and Juno keep on trucking

Jupiter as seen by the Juno spacecraft. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA's InSight lander on Mars and the Juno orbiter at Jupiter have new leases on life.

Why it matters: The spacecraft are expected to continue gathering data about their respective planetary targets during their newly extended missions, allowing scientists to learn more about seismic activity on Mars and turn their attention to the moons of Jupiter.

Updated 6 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

  1. Health: Most vulnerable Americans aren't getting enough vaccine information — Fauci says Trump administration's lack of facts on COVID "very likely" cost lives.
  2. Politics: Biden unveils "wartime" COVID strategyBiden's COVID-19 bubble.
  3. Vaccine: Florida requiring proof of residency to get vaccine — CDC extends interval between vaccine doses for exceptional cases.
  4. World: Hong Kong to put tens of thousands on lockdown as cases surge.
  5. Sports: 2021 Tokyo Olympics hang in the balance.
  6. 🎧 Podcast: Carbon Health's CEO on unsticking the vaccine bottleneck.

Trump impeachment trial to start week of Feb. 8, Schumer says

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. Photo: The Washington Post via Getty

The Senate will begin former President Trump's impeachment trial the week of Feb. 8, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced Friday on the Senate floor.

The state of play: Schumer announced the schedule after reaching an agreement with Republicans. The House will transmit the article of impeachment against the former president late Monday.

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