Report: NASA Should Update Policies That Protect Planets, Other Worlds During Exploration Missions

In June 2018 NASA’s Curiosity Rover used its Mast Camera, or Mastcam, to snap photos of the intensifying haziness the surface of Mars, caused by a massive dust storm. The rover is standing inside Gale Crater looking out to the crater rim. The photos span about a couple of weeks, starting with a shot of the area before the storm appeared. (Credits: NASA)

WASHINGTON — July 2, 2018 (NAS PR) – The current process for planetary protection policy development is inadequate to respond to increasingly complex solar system exploration missions, says a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

To prepare effectively for new dimensions of space exploration – including the entry of new international and private sector players and eventual human presence on other planetary bodies – the report calls for NASA to develop a planetary protection strategic plan, assess the completeness of policies, and initiate a process to formally define requirements that are missing.  NASA should also identify a strategy for dealing with major policy issues, such as sample-return from and human missions to Mars and private-sector solar system exploration missions.

Even before Sputnik began the spaceflight era, the international community expressed concern that space exploration could potentially contaminate other planetary bodies, thereby making it impossible to search for scientific evidence for life outside Earth. Likewise, samples of material returned from other bodies could pose risks to Earth.

Therefore, planetary protection – to prevent harmful contamination of other celestial bodies or the introduction of possible extraterrestrial life to Earth’s inhabitants and environment – has been an important principle throughout the history of space exploration.  Presently, developing planetary protection policy involves a process that flows between national and international policy formulation and national policy implementation.

“NASA has played a pivotal leadership role on behalf of the United States in developing successful planetary protection policies for more than five decades, and our recommendations are intended to help sustain that success in the future,” said Joseph Alexander, chair of the committee that wrote the report, and a private consultant in science and technology policy.  “Soundly framed and executed planetary protection policies will play a critical role in ensuring that space exploration efforts will deliver unambiguous answers about the possibility of life elsewhere in the solar system.”

The committee recommended that NASA  develop a  strategic plan that would help manage planetary protection policy implementation, secure outside advice, envision future exploration missions that could have planetary protection implications, and set research and technology investment priorities.

Planetary protection policies are facing unprecedented challenges as NASA and other national and international space agencies move forward on missions such as Mars Sample Return and exploration campaigns to the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn.  NASA also does not currently have a planetary protection policy in place regarding human exploration to Mars, which could take place in the 2030s.

Moreover, the current U.S. government process to oversee samples returned from Mars and elsewhere dates back to the Apollo era and is out of date.  The committee recommended that NASA’s agency-wide planetary protection strategic plan prepare for the policy development challenges that sample return and human missions to Mars are creating, as well as revise or replace its provisions for engaging relevant federal agencies in developing protection policies for returned samples.

Private-sector space exploration activities are another reason why planetary protection policies need re-examination.  The only commercial space missions that are currently required to undergo rigorous spacecraft decontamination procedures are those that might go to Mars, because Mars is the only body of current interest to private-sector entities that is potentially capable of harboring life.

Moreover, there is no regulatory agency within the U.S. government with the authority to regulate space exploration by non-government entities.  Legislation should be proposed that grants authority to an appropriate federal regulatory agency to authorize and supervise private sector space activities, the report says. The policy development process also should take into account the views of the private sector and increase its participation in international discussions of planetary protection policy.

The study was sponsored by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine. The National Academies operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln. For more information, visit

  • Zed_WEASEL

    If NASA & Co. fails to come up with new planetary protection policy that allows further exploration of the Solar System by the mid 2020s. Then effectively the current policy will be defunct with the entry into service of the “Heart of Gold”. The CTO from Hawthorne will not be patiently wait another decade for the bureaucrats to come up with something.

    Current planetary protection policy and manned deep space exploration are mutually exclusive IMO.

  • Kenneth_Brown

    Some sample return missions from Mars should be penciled into the schedule along with a facility on the Moon to analyze those samples for life, especially life that might be harmful to life on Earth.

    The Mars trilogy from Kim Stanley Robinson explores both sides of the debate and I have to agree with the Russel faction that at some point, trying to prevent contamination of Mars with Earthly life to preserve any very low probability indigenous life is just another argument about never going in the first place. I do agree that a quarantine over material returning from Mars is a good idea which is why I suggest a research facility on the moon. A dangerous lifeform could be just as deadly as a comet.

    When it’s the right time to send humans to Mars, some country is going to host the launch regardless of international treaties. Until then, rovers and landers will have a difficult time infecting Mars with anything virulent enough to devour all the life on Mars that might exist.

  • randy carson

    Let’s face it, the planet they’re really trying to protect is Earth. There’s something out there that they’re not telling us about, and now Musk and Co. or some other rich nutjob is going to bring a gift to Earth that will end us all. Worse yet, their actions could alert SOMETHING out there that does not have our best interests in mind.

  • Zed_WEASEL

    You could not be going to the Mars with crew while setting a Moonbase. There don’t appears to be the funding for doing both at the same time. A permanent Moonbase capable acting as a quarantine station will be extremely expensive and time consuming to set up.

    Also the from the Mars sample return program will likely to be outpaced by the emergence of the “Heart of Gold” and it’s robotic predecessors.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    You can’t send people to Mars without contaminating the place. We bring the Earth’s biome with us. People living their lives out on Mars will require a constant influx of Earth’s microbes to support the needs of humans and everything we take with us. We should send a scattering of probes (the same design) all over the planet. If it’s sterile, just declare Empire Earth for Earth’s biome and terraform the planet. If we find something, the debate will be ugly and likely the reason that drives Mars to declare independence one day. If we decide not to go to Mars to settle then we need to get started building very larg O’Neil style colonies so we can practice building and containing and controlling large scale biological systems.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    run for the hills, the space fairies are coming to get us

  • therealdmt

    “…the debate will be ugly and likely the reason that drives Mars to declare independence one day”

    Not if we repress them with an iron fist!

  • Michael Halpern

    Well there might be funding to do both, but you have to make some politically expensive concessions to do it, even then however that isn’t what would stop mars sample analysis on the moon, what will is safely stopping the return vehicle, traveling at interplanetary velocities, aero breaking helps.

    As for BFR, as amazing a vehicle it will be, not only is it important to remember that it will be a few cycles from first Mars landing to first Mars escape, but the BFS development vehicle hasn’t even been built yet, and to that same sort of point the sample return mission hasn’t gotten to vehicle design past what is going to be incorporated into Mars 2020, for all we know the lander portion could be a technology demonstrator for BFS, might not be as big, but they need something that if it can’t return on it’s own can carry a large enough rocket for the job,

  • redneck

    You are right about not doing both as long as the majority of funding is funneled through a single agency. When multiple serious players get in the game, there’s little chance that a single destination will preclude all others.

    I’m not a Mars fan. That being said, I see no reason to hold others back that have different priorities. Multiple destinations for multiple reasons, and exploit the successful.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Then THAT will be what drives them to declare independence.

  • Panice

    I read a report recently that some microbes had evolved the ability to eat the cleaning fluids being used by NASA to sterilize spacecraft. They were living on the walls of the cleaning chamber.

    We might manage the traffic of life to a degree, as we do on Earth, but we won’t stop it. Life is not contamination. Life grows wherever it can and that is as it should be. Our goal should be to help life, to spread Gaia across the universe.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Yes, since landers and the rovers would be able to cleaned to a level impossible on Earth.

    This is where you have an opportunity to integrate Gateway with Mars. Instead of trying to send humans to Mars directly you establish a base on one of the Martian Moons. Then, like the Gateway, use it to control rovers on the service using HD high speed VR links and to study samples from the surface.

    The bugs could be worked out of the Gateway modules in Lunar orbit, then the modules could be sent to Mars and buried on one of the Moons for radiation shielding.

  • ThomasLMatula

    You are assuming it will be only NASA. If you leverage space commerce and international partners it will be possible to do both.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Yes Mars might already be contaminated with Earth life. And, yes, management is the answer if there’s life. As I see it we have several cascades to fall through. Is there life on planet ( You name it). No? Terraform open loop. Yes? The question is do you have methods for management? Yes? Will your management techniques get in the way of short term money making or greatly impact the life of colonists? Yes? Temporary quarantine may be needed as a stop gap until more robust management techniques can be developed that don’t impact profit making or peoples lives. However if you are a society that does not want to drive any extraterrestrial life to extinction, you still have to act so that you’re not simply making room and allowing time for a society that will have no such reservations. It’s a terribly complex and rich problem and human society is not ready for it at all.

  • Panice

    Too true! Look at what a poor job we’ve done at protecting our own environment, the one we already rely on.

  • Panice

    On the other hand, if our space settlers do learn to manage the problem, we might learn something from them.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    The inability to deal with the politics from the business sector and peoples tendency to be lazy compounded by base human greed makes the management problem very difficult. The real art will be to come up with a management system that has those failings in mind and does not assume they are simply swept aside.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    That’s actually one of the biggest payoffs for the future Earth. Just as Great Brittian kept her independence by colonizing and then letting go the 13 orig colonies. An independent US was the best thing for the long term prospects of the UK. Likewise Earth’s best future lies with smart terraformers building better worlds.

  • envy

    There is no “international treaty” prohibiting crewed missions to Mars.

    And any microbes that might exist on Mars have basically no chance of being exceptionally virulent to humans. Even bugs that have evolved here with us aren’t generally that bad.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Open Space habitats will be how both the Solar System and Galaxy are settled. Settlements on planetary, Moon and large asteroids will only be an intermediate step that will enable their resources to be developed. Economically there is nothing that Mars had which isn’t available elsewhere, so making it a scientific preserve would have at best a minimal impact on the economic development of space.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Yea, the Black Death was just a minor event…

    But you shouldn’t be thinking of viruses and bacteria, prions might also be a risk and I bet NASA is not even looking for them.

  • envy

    Because highly specialized proteins that target only complex neurological tissues are likely to have evolved independently from humans?

    In any event, NASA is looking closely for any evidence of complex organics, which would certainly include prions.

    The plague-causing form of Y. pestis is also highly specialized to its particular attack vector, and only a couple mutations completely cripples its virulence to humans.

  • Zed_WEASEL

    NASA, ESA, JAXA & CSA are essentially one entity for Martian exploration. With side players including the ailing Russians with the Chinese tagging along plus tiny Indian & UAE presences.

    All of the above is competing with an eccentric billionaire to landed crew on Mars. While the other eccentric billionaires not named Branson are many years behind the first eccentric billionaire.

    From my point of view. If the future Hawthorne Martian retiree’s companies are vigorous and in the black by the time they started work on the “Heart of Gold” without too much delay from the stated schedule than he only got the NASA Mars mission plan based on a few dozens SLS to compete against. Presuming NASA didn’t get into the LOP-G cul-de-sac first.

  • Michael Halpern

    yeah prions have crazy life cycles, they are basically drunk evolution, with how specific they are