Report calls for changes to rules about contamination of other worlds

This artist’s concept depicts astronauts and human habitats on Mars. NASA

A new report has called for NASA to update its rules preventing the spread of viruses, bacteria, and other microorganisms to other planets in the course of space exploration.

The report was written by the Planetary Protection Independent Review Board (PPIRB), a recently created agency which considers the guidelines in place for preventing contamination of other planets or bodies by human activities, and also preventing astronauts bringing any potential contamination from elsewhere back to Earth with them.

An example of a recent contamination issue was the Israeli craft Beresheet, which may have spilled thousands of tardigrades onto the moon when it crashed. Although in that case, it is uncertain whether the tardigrades survived and they are unlikely to do any harm even if they did, the potential is there for serious contamination if humans carry other forms of life with them to off-world locations such as Mars.

The report points out that many of the guidelines for planetary protection were written at the beginnings of human space exploration and are in serious need of updating. In particular, it calls for recognizing the diversity which exists across planetary surfaces, rather than treating all of Mars as one entity, for example.

In the case of the moon, the entire body is classified as being of interest in terms of potential development of life. But scientists now know that if life ever could have developed on the moon, it would have happened at its poles where ice has been found. Therefore, most of the moon could have this classification removed, which would make planning and executing lunar missions much easier.

Some other aspects of planetary protection guidelines could be softened as well, such as the building of spacecraft in dedicated cleanrooms. These precautions take a great deal of time and money to implement and may not be necessary, according to some scientists.

NASA officials welcomed the report as a chance to update the planetary protection guidelines. “The landscape for planetary protection is moving very fast. It’s exciting now that for the first time, many different players are able to contemplate missions of both commercial and scientific interest to bodies in our solar system,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in a statement. “We want to be prepared in this new environment with thoughtful and practical policies that enable scientific discoveries and preserve the integrity of our planet and the places we’re visiting.”