Mars 2020 rover
Development of Mars 2020 remains on schedule despite uncertainty about when future phases of the overall Mars sample return effort will launch. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

WASHINGTON — NASA’s approaches to planetary protection are outdated in an era of more ambitious missions and emergence of private space exploration ventures and thus need to be revised, a new report concludes.

The report, prepared by a committee of the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine at the request of NASA and published July 2, found that existing policies developed for the Apollo lunar landings and the Viking missions to Mars decades ago don’t fit more advanced missions under development, including Mars sample return and exploration of “ocean worlds” in the outer solar system.

Those policies are intended in part to comply with Article 9 of the Outer Space Treaty, which requires countries to avoid “harmful contamination and also adverse changes in the environment of the Earth resulting from the introduction of extraterrestrial matter.” NASA developed policies to avoid contamination of potentially habitable worlds by its spacecraft, and to avoid contaminating the Earth’s environment with any materials those spacecraft return.

The committee concluded that while the central tenets of planetary protection policy, including its basis in the Outer Space Treaty and use of international cooperation, remain viable today, “the current planetary protection policy development process is inadequate to respond to progressively more complex solar system exploration missions, especially in an environment of significant programmatic constraints.”

An example of this cited in the report is the Mars 2020 mission under development. That spacecraft must comply with existing planetary protection standards for all spacecraft going to the Martian surface, but also with samples that rover will cache for later return to Earth. “Thus, Mars 2020 becomes the first-ever mission to have to deal with samples returned from Mars and, therefore, moves NASA into a new planetary protection regime,” the report noted.

That created a clash between the mission and NASA’s planetary protection officer, according to the report, over the level of sterilization needed to comply with planetary protection requirements. “Although the long-running disagreement was eventually resolved by a NASA headquarters decision, the committee found the failure to exercise a dispute resolution process sooner to be a troubling symptom of either a gap in NASA’s policy or a breakdown in utilizing policies that were available,” the report states.

NASA has since moved its planetary protection office from the Science Mission Directorate to the Office of Safety and Mission Assurance and hired a new person to lead the office. The report endorses that shift and calls on NASA to “expeditiously complete” that move.

Lisa Pratt, the Indiana University astrobiologist hired early this year to take the job, endorsed moving her office to the Office of Safety and Mission Assurance. “That’s not just symbolic. It’s a really change in the way we’ll be operating,” she said at an April meeting of the Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group. “That is a group that has a very clear process and protocol, and we’ll be gradually — probably over a period of about two years — figuring out how to make planetary protection fit into that office.”

Missions like Mars 2020 and Europa Clipper, which will make multiple flybys of Jupiter’s icy moon Europa, require a reconsideration of how NASA handles planetary protection policy development, the committee concluded. It called for the development of a “planetary protection strategic plan” that includes elements such as how to secure expert advice from outside the agency, forecast future missions that will have planetary protection issues and identifying research and technology development priorities for planetary protection.

The report also recommended a change in a 40-year-old policy, presidential directive NSC-25, that governs how to approve missions that could have “large-scale environmental effects.” That is primarily used for the approval of missions with nuclear power sources but can also govern missions that plan to return samples or even astronauts from potentially habitable worlds.

“Although NSC-25 prescribes an interagency review process, it does not adequately capture the full range of federal agencies that, today, would have a legitimate role in reviewing planetary protection plans for returned astronauts and samples,” the report states. It recommends that the administration, likely through the National Space Council and other venues, update that policy to support Mars sample return and eventual human missions.

Another issue highlighted in the report is the rise of commercial ventures that plan missions with planetary protection issues. That includes the inaugural launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket in February, which placed its payload — a Tesla Roadster sports car — into a heliocentric orbit that goes beyond the orbit of Mars, but does not pose a collision risk to the planet for the foreseeable future.

Planetary protection did not factor into the approval for that launch, according to the report. “While the Federal Aviation Administration approved the launch, there is no evidence that any formal discussion of planetary protection considerations took place.”

Pratt hinted that was the case in her April talk. “We had a demonstration that sort of slipped through our fingers in terms about thinking about planetary protection,” she said then.

The report recommended that both private and government missions be subjected to the same planetary protection requirements, but also that NASA “make appropriate efforts to take into account the views of the private sector in the development of planetary protection policy.”

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...