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Assessment of Planetary Protection Requirements for MARS: Sample Return Missions A Letter of Request from NASA
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Assessment of Planetary Protection Requirements for MARS: Sample Return Missions National Aeronautics and Space Administration Headquarters Washington, DC 20546-0001 FEB 06 2008 Reply to Atten of: Science Mission Directorate Dr. Leonard A. Fisk Chair, Space Studies Board National Research Council 500 Fifth Street, NW Washington, DC 20001 Dear Dr. Fisk: In accordance with international treaty obligations, NASA maintains a planetary protection policy to avoid biological contamination of other worlds, as well as to avoid the potential for harmful effects on the Earth due to the return of extraterrestrial materials by spaceflight missions. NASA Policy Directive 8020.7 requires that planetary protection requirements be based on recommendations from both internal and external advisory groups, but most notably the Space Studies Board (SSB). NASA relies on the Board's ability to synthesize input from a wide spectrum of the science community and provide expert advice and recommendations, both as an advisory body and as the U.S. representative to the International Council of Scientific Unions’ Committee on Space Research (COSPAR), which is consultative to the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. As such, the SSB's recommendations on planetary protection are internationally recognized as authoritative and independent of NASA. In 1997, the SSB published a report entitled “Mars Sample Return: Issues and Recommendations” that provided advice regarding the handling of samples returned to Earth from Mars. Interest in Mars sample return has recently been renewed both by NASA and within the international space exploration community, encouraged by the substantial increases in our knowledge of Mars and by past recommendations from the SSB, most recently in the report, “An Astrobiology Strategy for the Exploration of Mars”. In order to prepare for a future Mars sample return mission, NASA would find it very helpful if the SSB would review the findings of the 1997 report and update its recommendations, taking into account our current understanding of Mars' biological potential and ongoing improvements in biological, chemical, and physical sample analysis capabilities and technologies. Specifically, we request that the SSB consider the following subjects with reference to the original 1997 report, and update them as appropriate: The potential for living entities to be included in samples that are returned from Mars; The scientific investigations that could be conducted to reduce uncertainty in the above assessment;
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Assessment of Planetary Protection Requirements for MARS: Sample Return Missions The potential for large-scale effects on the Earth's environment by any returned entity released to the environment; The status of technological measures that could be taken on a mission to prevent the inadvertent release of a returned sample into the Earth's biosphere; and The criteria for intentional sample release, taking note of current and anticipated regulatory frameworks. In addition to these points, we also request that you assess the extent to which our increasing capabilities for studying the Earth's microbial inhabitants might appropriately be used to alter or improve implementation of the Mars sample return planetary protection requirements recommended in the 1997 report. In order for NASA to include the results of this study activity during planning for Mars Sample Return in coordination with the international working group IMARS, it would be highly desirable to receive an interim report by October 3, 2008, and a final report by May 29, 2009. I would like to request that the NRC submit a plan for execution of the study described herein. Once agreement on the scope, cost, and schedule for the proposed study has been achieved, the Contracting Officer will issue a task order for implementation. Dr. Catharine A. Conley, Planetary Protection Officer, will be the technical point of contact for this effort, and may be reached at email@example.com or (202) 358-3912. Sincerely, S. Alan Stern Associate Administrator for Science Mission Directorate