NASA Advisory Council Recommends Review of Planetary Protection Policies

Europa lander art
Revisions to planetary protection policies could better reflect human spaceflight activities as well as help reduce costs for science missions like a proposed Europa lander mission. (Image credit: NASA/JPL)

WASHINGTON — The NASA Advisory Council has recommended that NASA review its existing planetary protection guidelines to balance the needs of science and exploration, an effort that could set the stage for a similar revision at the international level.

The council, during a two-day meeting at NASA Headquarters Dec. 10–11, adopted a recommendation calling on NASA to establish an interdisciplinary committee of experts to review the agency's current requirements for preventing contamination of other worlds by NASA spacecraft as well as any contamination of the Earth by materials brought back from those worlds.

"NASA should establish a multidisciplinary task force of experts from industry, the scientific community, and relevant government agencies, to develop U.S. policies that properly balance the legitimate need to protect against the harmful contamination of the Earth or other celestial bodies with the scientific, social, and economic benefits of public and private space missions," the recommendation states.

That recommendation was based on discussion at a meeting of the council’s regulatory and policy committee Nov. 16 that current guidelines may not be feasible in a future era of human exploration of Mars and private sector missions. Those guidelines are based on ones adopted by the Committee for Space Research (COSPAR), an international scientific body.

"COSPAR is a great start," said Mike Gold, chairman of the committee, during a Dec. 10 council discussion on the topic. "But clearly times have changed. There are human spaceflight missions that we couldn't have imagined before. There are private sector players that again, a decade or two ago, we wouldn't have thought possible. This all impacts what we need to do in terms of COSPAR."

Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, said he supported a review of those guidelines and would be willing to set up a task force along the lines described in the recommendation. He cited changes in science, including new concepts about life and ways to detect it, as one reason the guidelines need to be updated.

"We want to change this policy regimen," he said, to one that "strikes the right balance" between science and human exploration. "Then we have a policy that is exactly what we want, which is a policy that balances the right way."

The recommendation called for the report of that task force to be reviewed by committees of the NASA Advisory Council that handle human spaceflight, science and regulatory issues. Zurbuchen added, though, that he expected the National Academies would also review this through its Space Studies Board or Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board.

Fiona Harrison, chair of the Space Studies Board, noted that one recommendation of a recent National Academies report on planetary protection called for a similar committee to review guidelines. "Cost constraints on missions, like Europa landers or Mars landers, make some of the current guidance difficult to adhere to," she said. "Also, the entry of commercial entities is really changing the landscape and the policies are really in need of updating."

She warned, though, that any updates should be done carefully to avoid international disputes, citing past leadership by the United States on the issue of planetary protection. "We should be careful to retain that leadership through this process," she said.

Len Fisk, a former NASA official who is the current president of COSPAR, attended the council meeting and backed the proposal, saying that such a review could open the door to a similar review of COSPAR's policies.

"The COSPAR planetary protection policies, which have been in place now for 50 years or so to oversee exploration on Mars in particular, need to be updated," he said. "They need to be updated to account for industry interests, human spaceflight interests and, as Thomas [Zurbuchen] says, more science input."

"We have led the world in planetary protection since the very beginning," he said, noting that the original COSPAR planetary protection guidelines were based on those developed by the Space Studies Board. "This is very much consistent with what we have done in other contexts."

There was less agreement, though, about revisiting the term "planetary protection" itself. Part of the recommendation approved by the council calls on the task force to "explore the use of the term 'Planetary Protection' relative to other terms utilized in the Outer Space Treaty," such as "harmful contamination." Some have argued that "harmful contamination" is less absolute than "planetary protection."

Harrison urged caution about changing the term. "While that might be something this task force should consider, I'll just note that it is one that NASA itself has forwarded internationally, and I think people understand what it means," she said. "That should be thought through carefully."

Meenakshi Wadhwa, chair of the council's science committee, said that the term has been in use for decades and is "a technical term that has certain implications." She agreed, though, that it would be worthwhile for the task force to review the use of that term versus potential alternatives.

Gold was pleased that the council approved that recommendation, which he dubbed the "Grand COSPAR Compromise of 2018" because it raised the possibility of updating planetary protection protocols at an international level. "There isn't a dispute between the human spaceflight industry and science," he said. "All we need to do is talk to each other, which I think this process does well."

This story was provided by SpaceNews, dedicated to covering all aspects of the space industry.

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at:

Jeff Foust
SpaceNews Senior Staff Writer

Jeff Foust is a Senior Staff Writer at SpaceNews, a space industry news magazine and website, where he writes about space policy, commercial spaceflight and other aerospace industry topics. Jeff has a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and earned a bachelor's degree in geophysics and planetary science from the California Institute of Technology. You can see Jeff's latest projects by following him on Twitter.