A new report recommends that NASA update its policies that protect planets and other solar system bodies from possible contamination during space exploration missions.
The current process for planetary protection policy development is inadequate, according to the report, which was published by the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. It notes that private-sector space exploration activities are another reason why planetary protection policies need re-examination.
The 170-page report — "Review and Assessment of Planetary Protection Policy Development Processes" — calls for NASA to develop a strategic plan for planetary protection, assess the completeness of policies and initiate a process to formally define requirements that are missing. [6 Most Likely Places for Alien Life in the Solar System]
Mars and ocean moons
Spotlighted in the report are Mars sample-return missions and exploration campaigns to the icy, ocean-harboring moons of Jupiter and Saturn.
Some of these projects are already in the works. For example, NASA's 2020 Mars rover will cache samples for future return to Earth (though there's no mission on the space agency's books to actually do the fetching). NASA also plans to launch a flyby mission to Jupiter's potentially habitable moon Europa in the early 2020s, and the agency is developing a possible Europa lander as well.
Crewed Mars missions are another important issue. Though NASA aims to launch people toward the Red Planet before the end of the 2030s, the agency doesn't have a specific planetary-protection policy in place in this regard, according to the report. Moreover, it notes, the current U.S. government process to oversee samples returned from Mars and elsewhere is out of date; it goes back to the Apollo era.
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 finds.
Flagged in the report as a current example of this concern is the maiden flight of SpaceX's Falcon 9 Heavy rocket this past February, which lofted a Tesla roadster into a Mars-crossing orbit. To the best of the report authors' knowledge, no consultations about the test’s planetary protection implications took place.
You can download a free copy of the National Academies' new report here.
Leonard David is author of "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet," published by National Geographic. The book is a companion to the National Geographic Channel series "Mars." A longtime writer for Space.com, David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook or Google+. This version of the story published on Space.com.