The White House Releases National Strategy for Planetary Protection

NASA Mars Ascent Vehicle

This illustration shows a concept of how the NASA Mars Ascent Vehicle, carrying tubes containing rock and soil samples, could be launched from the surface of Mars in one step of the Mars sample return mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The National Strategy for Planetary Protection reflects the critical importance of planetary protection to the future of space science, exploration, and life on Earth. Planetary protection refers to the policy and practice of protecting future scientific investigations by limiting biological contamination of other planetary bodies through exploration activities and protecting the Earth’s biosphere by avoiding harmful biological contamination by returning spacecraft.

Mitigating the risk of harmful biological contamination of the Earth (termed “backward contamination”) and other planetary bodies (termed “forward contamination”) supports a safe, sustainable, and predictable Earth and space environment. New missions to the Moon, Mars, and other destinations are underway or under consideration by NASA, other national space programs from around the world, and the private sector. While samples from Earth’s Moon have been deemed non-hazardous and their return to Earth has been unrestricted since 1971, both public and private entities are considering missions that would collect and return samples from other planetary bodies that have not been as thoroughly studied.

By considering the emergence of new efforts to explore and use the solar system, this strategy provides guidance to address the diverse challenges and manage any potential risk of biological contamination associated with space exploration. Accordingly, this strategy balances United States interests in promoting scientific discovery, human exploration, and the growth of private sector space activities, all with due consideration for public safety and applicable obligations. The United States intends to remain a leader in the development of internationally accepted policies and practices addressing planetary protection.

The National Strategy for Planetary Protection is an important implementation step under the 2020 National Space Policy; specifically, “the development of national and international planetary protection guidelines, working with scientific and commercial partners, for the appropriate protection of planetary bodies and Earth from harmful biological contamination.”Continued implementation of this directive will require updating United States department and agency roles and responsibilities, providing authorization and continuing supervision of private space activities, maintaining international leadership, and encouraging the development of innovative technologies and processes that reduce the costs of planetary protection.

The strategy sets forth three overarching objectives corresponding to forward contamination, backward contamination, and private sector coordination:

Objective 1: Avoid harmful forward contamination by developing and implementing risk assessment and science-based guidelines and updating the interagency payload review process.

Objective 2: Avoid backward contamination by developing a Restricted Return Program to protect against adverse effects on the Earth environment due to the potential return of extraterrestrial life.

Objective 3: Incorporate the perspective and needs of the private sector by soliciting feedback and developing guidelines regarding private sector activities with potential planetary protection implications.

Efforts to meet these objectives and to develop the national planetary protection action plan will be coordinated by the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and National Space Council (NSpC) staff, in close cooperation with appropriate Federal departments and agencies, to ensure continued United States leadership in safe and responsible scientific discovery, human exploration, and private sector space activities.

Reference: “National Strategy for Planetary Protection” by The White House National Space Council, December 2020.

6 Comments on "The White House Releases National Strategy for Planetary Protection"

  1. I’m no expert, but to me it seems logical that potentially bio-hazardous samples be delivered to facilities at our Moon, whether on the surface or in lunar orbit.

    • Torbjörn Larsson | January 1, 2021 at 2:36 am | Reply

      Infectious diseases are primarily coevolved with their hosts, though of course there are species jumps or they wouldn’t be a problem. But they are rare risks, only ~ 1,000 out of 10 – 100 million prokaryote operational taxonomic units or 10^-4 of prokaryotes cause disease in humans.

      Here we would be talking different biospheres so risks are theoretically possible rather than practically likely.

    • Torbjörn Larsson | January 1, 2021 at 2:38 am | Reply

      Oh, and I think the ISS was the original target for sample transfer before US steered its efforts away from Mars again and shot for a simpler Moon return. Now the possible Gateway is the transfer target.

  2. About time we re-consider infecting Mars with Earth microbes and bringing Mars microbes back to earth. If sterilizing works so well why are there ‘clean’ rooms? Irradiating doesn’t work 100 %, in fact radiation can mutate a microbe into a deadlier lifeform. Ask a ‘water bear’ a tardigrade can handle 3,000 + rads and survive. Exposure of humans above 500-1000 rads gets deadlier to the human. At 3000 rads we are on a slippery slope. Even space rocks contaminate our atmosphere. That’s how the universe works…life…death…life again.

    • Torbjörn Larsson | January 1, 2021 at 2:57 am | Reply

      So risks are unlikely due to properties of divergent evolution, see my response to John Bayer.

      Cleanrooms are used for minimizing particulates, especially for electronics and optics. I think you mean sterile rooms, as during surgery, but like no room can be perfectly particle free it can’t be sterile either (even if you take humans out of them).

      We have contaminated Mars with cellular organisms since the start of Mars landings. Possibly the Viking landers had sterile parachutes – pressure cooked with the rest inside a clam shell I think – else those and the innards of landers contain the most cells and spores though the outside aren’t sterile either. I’m pulling this from memory but I think the US protocol leaves about half a million spores in the weave of lander chutes as from when I did an estimate years ago before I grokked evolution and was still concerned. Lander insides are wiped down with antiseptics at best, IIRC, so they contain much more. None of that is expected to last very long, given the oxidative environment.

      Conversely, as you say, Mars has contaminated Earth and Earth has contaminated the system out to the moons of Saturn with giant impactor ejecta material at much larger volumes. (As the ejecta density from Earth drops to 1 rock in a few billion years for a typical small moon area cross section at Saturn.) For a Chicxulub massed impactor, the crust ejecta that spallate away and travels back through the evacuated impact atmosphere corridor comprise some 2-5 % in simulations. And as proof-of-concept we have found Earth mineral crystals imbedded in Moon rocks that Apollo took back [ ].

      “In January 2019 research showed that a fragment (clast) embedded in Big Bertha has numerous characteristics that make it very likely to be a terrestrial (Earth) meteorite. Granite and quartz, which are commonly found on Earth but very rare to find on the Moon, were confirmed to exist in this fragment. To find the sample’s age, the research team from Curtin University looked at bits of the mineral zircon embedded in its structure. “By determining the age of zircon found in the sample, we were able to pinpoint the age of the host rock at about four billion years old, making it similar to the oldest rocks on Earth,” researcher Alexander Nemchin said, adding that “the chemistry of the zircon in this sample is very different from that of every other zircon grain ever analyzed in lunar samples, and remarkably similar to that of zircons found on Earth.” This means that Big Bertha is both the first discovered terrestrial meteorite and the oldest known Earth rock.[4][5]”

      And of course we have Moon and Mars meteorites as evidence in the other direction.

  3. Kudzu

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