Mars Base Camp lander
Lockheed Martin's proposed reusable Mars lander, a new element to its Mars Base Camp architecture. Credit: Lockheed Martin

WASHINGTON — An independent report is calling on NASA to update decades’ old planetary protection policies to reflect changing knowledge of solar system habitability and to enable future exploration by both the space agency and commercial entities.

The report by the Planetary Protection Independent Review Board, released by NASA Oct. 18, called for reassessing existing policies intended to prevent contamination of other worlds by terrestrial organisms, or contamination of the Earth by any extraterrestrial life, arguing that current planetary protection requirements are “anachronistic and sometimes unrealistic” for many missions to implement.

“At the time planetary protection was born at the beginning of the Space Age in the 1960s, we knew very little about the planets and their environments and their habitability; their suitability for astrobiology,” said Alan Stern, a planetary scientist and former NASA associate administrator for science who chaired the 12-person board that included people from science and the space industry, during a call with reporters. After decades of exploration of solar system bodies, he said, “we have a much more nuanced and, for that matter, sophisticated view of them.”

Those recommendations include evaluating the technologies and techniques currently used to meet planetary protection requirements, allowing the use of “novel methods” to meet guidelines in a more feasible and cost-effective way. That is a particular concern for low-cost missions, which have sometimes struggled to meet requirements that are sometimes added late in mission development, the board found.

The report recommended NASA study reclassifying parts of the moon and Mars to reflect that changing knowledge. Planetary protection guidelines use a five-stage classification, based on the world and the type of mission, to determine the level of requirements that should be levied on those missions. Lunar landers fall under Category 2, which requires documentation but no specific cleanliness standards, while Mars landers are in Category 4, with stringent sterilization and “bioburden reduction” requirements.

The report concluded that parts of the moon could be reclassified at Category 1, with no planetary protection requirements, while parts of Mars could be reclassified as Category 2. Stern said the exact locations that could be reclassified would need be studied, but he expected that much of the moon outside the polar regions, which could harbor water ice and organic materials, could be moved to Category 1.

“This entire topic needs a hard look. That’s our recommendation: that we move from the sort of ’60s-’70s single categorization for a world like the moon or a world like Mars, to this more sophisticated view,” Stern said, adding that the report also recommended NASA review the overall planetary protection process at least twice a decade.

Such a reclassification could aid later human missions to Mars in particular. The report concluded that planetary protection planning for such missions “are presently immature” and called on NASA to develop specific guidelines for human missions and public communication of them. It also concluded that Mars sample return missions, which fall under a special Category 5 with rigorous sterilization requirements, “are difficult, if not impossible, for human missions and their hardware to achieve.”

The report also addressed growing commercial activity in space, including missions to the moon and Mars. While NASA is not a regulatory agency, it does have opportunities to weigh in on planetary protection issues for commercial missions, such as during interagency reviews of missions seeking a commercial launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration, said Lisa Pratt, NASA’s planetary protection officer.

The report recommended NASA work with other parts of the government, including the White House and Congress, to determine who should be responsible for planetary protection regulation of commercial missions. In the meantime, the report noted NASA can link compliance with planetary protection guidelines with eligibility for NASA contracts.

NASA welcomed the report and indicated it planned to implement its recommendations. “Our guidelines on how we protect the places we’re going from contamination, and how we protect our own planet on the way back, are in urgent need of updating,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, on the media call. He established the board earlier this year on the recommendation of advisory committees. “NASA agrees with the intent of the report’s recommendation and will be working with internal groups, as well as with the National Academies and external stakeholders, on next steps.”

That will include proposing changes in international planetary protection guidelines currently maintained by the Committee on Space Research, or COSPAR. “We’ve already talked about” working with COSPAR on such changes, Zurbuchen said. Stern briefed Len Fisk, president of COSPAR, about the recommendations, he said, “and we know from Len Fisk that he is excited” about them.

Fisk, in a later interview, confirmed that excitement. “Alan Stern did a masterful job” leading the committee and producing the report, he said. “The nature of space activities is changing from pure science, and policies need to reflect that.”

Fisk said he was “absolutely optimistic” that final recommendations for changes, which will be prepared and submitted by the National Academies’ Space Studies Board, will ultimately be adopted by COSPAR.

Mike Gold, chairman of the NASA Advisory Council’s Regulatory and Policy Committee, which also called for planetary protection reform, endorsed the report.

“I’m extraordinarily proud of the common ground that this review board has established between government, industry and academia. Working together, we can establish a new paradigm that bolsters both science and commerce,” he said in a statement to SpaceNews. “With the review complete, I’m eager to proceed with the next phase of this effort to implement the board’s recommendations for reform.”

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...