Report: Review and Assessment of Planetary Protection Policy Development Processes

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Mars Sample Return

The current process for planetary protection policy development is inadequate to respond to increasingly complex solar system exploration missions, says a new report.

The report "Review and Assessment of Planetary Protection Policy Development Processes" has been released by 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 http://national-academies.org.

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