Red Dragon landing
SpaceX planned to use propulsive landing systems for its Red Dragon Mars missions. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said July 19 that the company is no longer pursuing that landing approach. Credit: SpaceX

WASHINGTON — NASA’s new planetary protection officer is open to reexamining how the agency deals with both government and commercial missions to Mars and other potentially habitable worlds in the solar system.

Lisa Pratt, an astrobiologist who had been a professor in Indiana University’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, was named the agency’s new planetary protection officer in January, and formally started on the job in early February. The position oversees NASA activities to ensure that they do not contaminate other worlds with terrestrial life or risk contaminating the Earth with any extraterrestrial life forms.

Pratt took the job as part of a shift of the position by NASA from the agency’s Science Mission Directorate to its Office of Safety and Mission Assurance, which NASA announced last year.

“For me, the main thing that happens with that move is that it gives us an opportunity to really refocus on facilitation of missions,” she said in a presentation to the Planetary Science Advisory Committee here Feb. 22. That means, she said, assisting missions with complying with planetary protection regulations, rather than simply enforcing those regulations. “We have to do it in a way that assists missions, and we don’t look like some kind of sheriff’s department that is constantly coming down on the missions.”

Pratt said her near-term focus is on launch preparations for the InSight Mars lander mission, scheduled to launch May 5, as well as the Mars 2020 rover mission. Both missions, she said, are complicated by the inclusion of cubesat secondary payloads, which her office has to ensure don’t risk contaminating the primary spacecraft.

Lisa Pratt, new NASA planetary protection officer. Credit: Anna Powell Teeter/Indiana Univ.

Cubesats in general, including those proposed for missions to Mars or other solar system destinations, pose new challenges for planetary protection. “They get manufactured in lots of places where we’re really scrambling to ensure that people who are making cubesats understand planetary protection,” she said.

Pratt said her office is looking at a number of technical and more strategic issues regarding planetary protection protocols and implementation. She said there’s interest in examining commercial sterilization techniques that could be applied to future NASA missions, particularly those where heating or application of some chemicals can’t be used.

The office is also rethinking planetary protection procedures for Mars given plans for eventual human missions there, with cooperation planned with NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) Mission Directorate. “No matter what we do, the minute we’ve got humans in the area we’ve got a less pristine” environment on Mars, she said. “Let’s hope we know, before the humans get there, one way or the other, if there is an ecosystem at or near the surface.”

One way to find out, she suggested, would be to allow for robotic exploration of so-called “special regions” on Mars that have conditions that could potentially support at least terrestrial life. Those regions are, for now, off-limits to spacecraft. “How do we designate a few — a very small number, but a few — special places on Mars where we can get in now with rovers and landers and do a better job of asking and addressing the question of, ‘Is there present-day surface life on Mars?’” she said.

Doing so would require revisiting the guidelines established by the Committee on Space Research, and she said “international conversations” are underway on the topic. “We just can’t declare every interesting place off the table,” she said, “because that means the first time we’ll know anything is when we’ve got humans there, and I don’t think human contact with special regions is the best way.”

Pratt said her office is also interested in working with potential commercial missions to Mars and other worlds subject to planetary protection protocols. Such discussions, she said, were limited prior to the Feb. 6 launch of a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket carrying a Tesla Roadster sports car into a heliocentric orbit that goes beyond the orbit of Mars.

Her office received many questions about NASA’s role in planetary protection for that mission, she said. “The answer was little or nothing,” she said. “We were supporting their launch, but we did not have a planetary protection plan in place.”

She called for more collaboration with commercial ventures on the issue, and suggested that such missions need not be subject to the same stringent requirements as government missions, calling for “reasonable protocols and processes” for commercial missions.

“What we do, and what ESA is doing, in some cases are requirements that would be virtually impossible for a commercial mission to meet,” she said. “We have to figure out how to work closely, how to move forward in a collaborative posture so we don’t have another red Roadster up there in orbit.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...