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Preventing the Forward Contamination of Mars
craft destined for Mars, the methods employed to achieve those levels, and the scientific investigations needed to reduce uncertainty in preventing the forward contamination of Mars. In addition, this report urges dialogue at the earliest opportunity on broader questions about the role of planetary protection policies in safeguarding the planet Mars and an indigenous biosphere, should one exist.
In the United States, NASA has responsibility for implementing planetary protection policies that are developed in the international scientific community and, specifically, within the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR), a multidisciplinary committee of the International Council for Science (ICSU; formerly the International Council of Scientific Unions). COSPAR policies on planetary protection have evolved over time as scientists have acquired new information about Mars and other planets and about the potential for life to survive there. NASA has requested this National Research Council (NRC) study, and previous studies on the same topic from the NRC’s Space Studies Board (SSB), to inform U.S. planetary protection practices; in turn, the NRC studies have provided input to the official COSPAR policies on planetary protection.
The committee evaluated current science about Mars, the ability of organisms to survive at the extremes of conditions on Earth, new technologies and techniques to detect life, methods to decontaminate and sterilize spacecraft, and the history and prior bases of planetary protection policy, as well as other relevant scientific, technical, and policy factors. It found that (1) many of the existing policies and practices for preventing the forward contamination of Mars are outdated in light of new scientific evidence about Mars and current research on the ability of microorganisms to survive in severe conditions on Earth; (2) a host of research and development efforts are needed to update planetary protection requirements so as to reduce the uncertainties in preventing the forward contamination of Mars; (3) updating planetary protection practices will require additional budgetary, management, and infrastructure support; and (4) updating planetary protection practices will require a roadmap, including a transition plan with interim requirements, and a schedule. In addition, the committee found that scientific data from ongoing Mars missions may point toward the possibility that Mars could have locales that would permit the growth of microbes brought from Earth, or that could even harbor extant life (although this remains unknown),5 and that these intriguing scientific results raise potentially important questions about protecting the planet Mars itself, in addition to protecting the scientific investigations that might be performed there.
Taken together, the committee’s recommendations constitute a roadmap for 21st-century planetary protection that emphasizes research and development; interim requirements; management and infrastructure for the transition to a new approach; and a systematic plan, process, and time line.
This executive summary presents a subset of the committee’s recommendations. All of the committee’s recommendations are included and discussed in Chapter 8.
RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT FOR 21st-CENTURY PLANETARY PROTECTION
For the most part, the bulk of NASA research and development on techniques to prevent the forward contamination of Mars was conducted during the Viking era, when the agency was preparing to send two landers to Mars that would include life-detection experiments.6 Since the Viking program, continuing though comparatively little research has been done on planetary protection techniques, owing to the 20-year hiatus in Mars lander missions (Viking in 1976, Mars Pathfinder in 1996), the post-Viking perspective that Mars was a dry and barren place, and the expense and effort required to research, develop, and implement new requirements to prevent the forward contamination of Mars.7
During the early 1970s, NASA undertook extensive research and development to better understand how to detect contamination on spacecraft and sterilize the spacecraft, and how methods used for those purposes would affect the spacecraft materials. The Viking mission was designed specifically with planetary protection in mind, which has not been the case for subsequent missions. See Bionetics Corporation (1990).
See, for example, Dickinson et al. (2004a,b), Venkateswaren et al. (2001, 2003), Baker (2001), Baker and Rummel (2005), and Kminek and Rummel (2005).