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Red Dragon
Plans for human missions to Mars, as well as commercial efforts like SpaceX’s Red Dragon (above), are creating new issues for planetary protection. (credit: SpaceX)

New challenges for planetary protection

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For all its problems, one problem NASA doesn’t have is a lack of attention-grabbing job titles: what other organization has both a Planetary Defense Officer and a Planetary Protection Officer? While they sound similar, the two positions are quite different. The former is about defending our planet from threats posed by near Earth objects. The latter, though, is about both protecting our planet from any extraterrestrial organisms missions might bring back from other worlds, as well as protecting those other worlds from terrestrial contamination.

Planetary protection has been around for decades, but the topic is becoming more complex and critical. As NASA’s Mars ambitions ramp up, including robotic missions to return samples from the planet and, eventually, human missions there, protecting both any Martian biosphere from terrestrial organisms, and future human inhabitants from Martian organisms, becomes a growing factor in mission planning. At the same time, private ventures like SpaceX have their own Mars mission plans, with views towards planetary protection that may differ from NASA.

“Don’t you just cancel planetary protection once humans set foot on Mars?” one committee member asked. “Good luck keeping it clean.”

The National Academies started earlier this year a study titled “Review of Planetary Protection Policy Development Processes,” funded by NASA. A committee is examining the history of development of planetary protection policies and their current status, with a goal offering recommendations “on how to assure the planetary protection policy process is supportive of future scientific and societal interests, as well as spaceflight missions.”

At a meeting of the study committee last month in Washington, issues involving both NASA and commercial missions, to Mars in particular, were at the heart of panel discussions.

NASA has a well-established process for implementing planetary protection for robotic Mars missions, but the agency is thinking about how that would work for human missions. “Human-class landers are 20 metric tons,” said Rick Davis, assistant director for science and exploration in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, comparing those spacecraft with robotic ones, which to date have weighed no more than one ton. “These are big, complex things that have lots of parts that really don’t bake very well.”

“Especially humans,” added one committee member.

The discussion between Davis and the committee illustrated one of the challenges of planetary protection for human Mars missions: how to avoid forward contamination of Mars while still doing useful exploration, particularly of so-called “special regions” that may have water and would be particularly hospitable to any life there today. Davis appeared ready to take on that challenge head-on, even if it’s not clear yet how to solve it. “I think we have to run to special regions problem and understand it,” he said.

Some committee members seemed skeptical that planetary protection protocols could remain in place once human exploration of the Red Planet begins. “Don’t you just cancel planetary protection once humans set foot on Mars?” one person asked during a presentation by Gale Allen, NASA acting chief scientist. “Good luck keeping it clean.”

Davis acknowledged that some changes would be required. “I really do not believe these systems can be held to those robotic standards,” he said of human landers. More data, he added, is needed on the Martian environment before making decisions on what tradeoffs can be made on planetary protection requirements that can be achieved for crewed vehicles. “I think we need to be looking at that transition plan more, and sooner, than what we are currently doing.”

He said that he was more concerned about backward contamination from Mars than forward contamination of Mars. “I don’t worry about backward contamination affecting the Earth. I worry about backward contamination affecting the crew,” he said. “We do owe those crews that go to Mars what I call a due diligence.”

NASA, meanwhile, is reconsidering how it places planetary protection within its organizational structure. The office had been located within the Science Mission Directorate, but at the committee meeting last month, Allen said the agency had recently decided to move it outside the directorate, placing it within the Office of Safety and Mission Assurance, classified as a “technical authority” within NASA.

“While we agreed that the planetary protection function can reside anywhere in the agency,” she said, “we determined that the planetary protection function should really fall under a technical authority.”

“I don’t worry about backward contamination affecting the Earth. I worry about backward contamination affecting the crew,” Davis said.

Mark Saunders, who led NASA’s Independent Program Assessment Office before retiring from the agency several years ago, and now serves on the committee, concurred with that decision. “By moving it into a technical authority, there’s a very disciplined process in the agency about how technical authority works,” he said. “There is a dissent resolution process associated with it.”

The decision to move the office came just last month, shortly before the committee meeting. “It will obviously take a while to work out the details and get it implemented,” she said. “But the decision has been made.”

Commercial issues for planetary protection

NASA and other government agencies are no longer alone in planning missions to Mars or other planetary bodies. SpaceX has its own plan for Mars missions, starting with the launch of one, and possibly two, Red Dragon robotic spacecraft to attempt to land on the planet in 2020. The company has already started scouting landing sites for those initial missions as it refines an architecture for sending humans there as soon as later in the 2020s.

Such missions are outside NASA’s authority to review for compliance with planetary protection protocols. The Space Act Agreement between NASA and SpaceX for cooperation on the Red Dragon mission does include, as one aspect, coordination on planetary protection issues for those initial missions.

Planetary protection, though, also raises the issue of compliance with the Outer Space Treaty. Article IX of the treaty requires nations planning missions to celestial bodies “conduct exploration of them so as to avoid their harmful contamination and also adverse changes in the environment of the Earth resulting from the introduction of extraterrestrial matter and, where necessary, shall adopt appropriate measures for this purpose.”

For commercial missions, this raises issues similar to those required to comply with Article VI requirements for “authorization and continuing supervision” that have attracted the attention of some in Congress (see “Is it time to update the Outer Space Treaty?”, The Space Review, June 5, 2017). How the federal government would ensure that a US company would comply with planetary protection protocols—or even what those protocols should be—is another gray area for those ventures.

“No processes are currently in place dealing with commercial mission oversight,” said Cassie Conley, NASA’s planetary protection officer.

“We don’t have the expertise in-house when it comes to planetary protection,” said Kelvin Coleman, acting deputy associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the FAA. His office licenses commercial launches, a process that includes a payload review that would, potentially, include a planetary protection review. He said the FAA would “be leaning on” NASA to provide planetary protection expertise.

“The sense of industry is that the current planetary protection requirements for Mars are not set up to enable commercialization, particularly with commercial human spaceflight,” Noble said.

When the FAA granted a positive payload review to Moon Express last year for its commercial lunar lander, that review included an assessment of a planetary protection plan, even though the Moon does not pose risks for forward or backward contamination. “We couldn’t require them to have a plan, but they recognized what the issues were and voluntarily submitted a plan, knowing that, absent a plan, it would have probably resulted in an unfavorable determination,” he said.

Coleman cautioned, though, that the Moon Express review was a one-off approval that doesn’t set a precedent for future missions, even as Congress weighs options for establishing a more formal process for reviewing and approving non-traditional commercial missions. He added that SpaceX has started the payload review process for its Red Dragon missions, which will require FAA launch licenses, and that the review will include planetary protection issues.

There is skepticism by some in industry, though, about the importance of planetary protection. In a conversation with a New York University astronomy club last month, which later leaked online, Tom Mueller, propulsion chief technology officer for SpaceX, expressed doubts that planetary protection was needed to either protect future Mars explorers or to search for life there.

“If you’re trying to tell Earth life from Martian life, you look at the genes and it’s going to be very easy to determine that,” he said. “I think it’s way overblown.” (Last week, The Mars Society—whose founder, Robert Zubrin, has also been critical about planetary protection requirements—announced that Mueller will speak at the organization’s annual conference in September.)

One industry representative at last month’s committee meeting also expressed doubts about the applicability of planetary protection requirements to commercial missions. “I think the general sense is that the requirements may not enable commercialization, especially in a human spaceflight context at Mars,” said Ryan Noble of Bigelow Aerospace, chair of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation’s regulatory committee.

Noble said he couldn’t offer specific details about where planetary protection requirements might clash with commercial missions. “The sense of industry is that the current planetary protection requirements for Mars are not set up to enable commercialization, particularly with commercial human spaceflight,” he said.

Noble did say he recommended performance-based standards for planetary protection, rather than stipulating specific processes or procedures for achieving planetary protection requirements, giving companies and organizations the flexibility to find ways to best meet those standards.

Those issues are on NASA’s radar. At the end of a House Science Committee space subcommittee hearing last week on NASA’s fiscal year 2018 budget request, subcommittee chairman Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX) asked NASA acting administrator Robert Lightfoot if NASA should be “responsible for regulating private sector planetary protection standards.”

“I think we would like to be engaged in that conversation,” Lightfoot responded. “I think we have some expertise that we can bring to bear there. I don’t see us so much as a regulatory agency as one that should be consulted.”

With a lot of work left to do for that National Academies committee alone—its final report is not due until late next summer—there will be a lot of consultation and discussion about how to carry out planetary protection while still enabling government and commercial missions to Mars and beyond.