National Aeronautics and Space Administration
Reply to Attn of: Science Mission Directorate
|FEB 29 2016|
Dr. David Spergel
Chair, Space Studies Board
National Research Council 500 5th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20001
Dear Dr. Spergel:
We live in an incredible time of space and Earth Science discovery. In recent years there have been significant developments related to the exploration of planetary environments, and solar system destinations thought to be capable of having harbored life or thought to be capable of currently harboring life. NASA’s Cassini mission revealed a global ocean lies beneath the icy crust of Saturn’s moon Enceladus, and NASA’s Galileo probe discovered a body of liquid water locked inside the icy shell of Jupiterâ€™s moon Europa. Further, the Mars 2020 mission will look for signs of past life, collect samples for possible future return to Earth, and will demonstrate technology for future human exploration of Mars.
The 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty (OST) to which the U.S. is signatory, states that all States Parties to the treaty "shall conduct exploration so as to avoid their harmful contamination, and also adverse changes in the environment of the Earth resulting from the introduction of extraterrestrial matter,â€ and â€œshall bear international responsibility for national activities in outer space, whether such activities are carried on by governmental agencies or by non-governmental entities." Today, a range of other nations and non-state actors have expressed an intent to send spacecraft and humans to Mars in the coming years.
The technical guidelines for planetary protection are developed through the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) Panel on Planetary Protection. Through this process, planetary protection policy has evolved steadily over the years, and spacefaring organizations such as NASA formulate and implement planetary protection policies and procedures for their missions to be consistent with COSPAR Planetary Protection Policy. While the Space Studies Board (SSB) advice has always been directed to NASA, the recommendations have almost always been considered by COSPAR, and many have been adopted internationally. In order to remain effective, planetary protection policy must account for the evolving landscape and challenges presented by the OST.
As NASA implements plans for future missions, this is a good time for a study of the current process by which planetary protection policy is developed and to recommend actions for NASA to consider in ensuring effective coordination on planetary protection. I would like to
suggest that the SSB conduct a study of these issues and develop a report that presents its findings and recommendations. To strongly affect the implementation of planetary protection for NASA missions currently in formulation, we would need to receive the results of the study by the end of 2017. The scope and focus of such a study are described in the enclosed Statement of Task. I would like to request that the SSB submit a plan for such a study and a report on its findings.
Once the agreement with the National Research Council on the scope and cost for the proposed study has been achieved, the NASA Contracting Officer will issue a task order for implementation. Mr. David Pierce will be the technical point of contact for this effort and may be reached at (202) 358-3808 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
cc: Office of the Chief Scientist/E. Stofan
- A. Kaminski
Science Mission Directorate/G.Yoder
- C. Conley
- J. Green
- D. Holland
- D. Pierce
- B. Pugel
- G. Robinson
STATEMENT OF TASK
Review of Planetary Protection Policy Development Processes
Background and Scone
Planetary protection is the practice of protecting solar system bodies (i.e., planets, moons, comets, and asteroids) from contamination by Earth life in order to preserve the scientific integrity of studies at those destinations relating to the origins of life and/or prebiotic chemical evolution and protecting Earthâ€™s inhabitants and environment from harm that could be caused by possible extraterrestrial life forms. The 1967 United Nations "Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Bodies" (the Outer Space Treaty - OST) to which the U.S. and most other spacefaring nations are signatory, states in Article IX that all States Parties to the treaty "shall pursue studies of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, and 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.â€ In addition, Article VI of the same treaty specifies that States Parties "shall bear international responsibility for national activities in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, whether such activities are carried on by governmental agencies or by non-governmental entities."
The technical guidelines for planetary protection are developed through the deliberations of the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) Panel on Planetary Protection, which are regularly undertaken on the basis of participants either reporting new scientific findings with policy implications (e.g., water being more abundant at a particular target than was previously recognized) and/or raising questions regarding specific concerns that may need to be to be addressed (e.g., new activities in space exploration that could affect policy compliance). The Panel develops recommendations that the COSPAR Bureau may adopt for inclusion into the official COSPAR Planetary Protection Policy. Through this process, the COSPAR Planetary Protection Policy has evolved steadily and incrementally over the years since it was initially created. Spacefaring organizations such as NASA formulate and implement planetary protection policies and procedures for their space missions to be consistent with COSPAR Planetary Protection Policy.
In recent years there have been significant developments related to the exploration of planetary environments. There have been major advances in the state of scientific knowledge regarding the environments of solar system destinations thought to be capable of having harbored life or thought to be capable of currently harboring life. Scientific understanding has also evolved regarding the nature of life on Earth in environments that are thought to be analogous to some of those expected at solar system destinations. In addition, there have been advances in the technology available to reduce microbial populations on spacecraft and to measure various levels of biological cleanliness.
Meanwhile, NASAâ€™s priorities have evolved to include special emphasis on robotic exploration of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn that are now known to have liquid water oceans, especially, but not limited to, Europa and Enceladus, as well as Restricted Earth Return missions (that have not been undertaken since Apollo) and human exploration of Mars. A range of other nations and nonstate actors also have expressed an intent to send spacecraft and humans to Mars in the coming years. Planetary protection policy must account for this evolving landscape in order to remain effective in addressing the challenges posed by Article IX, and now also Article VI, of the OST.
It is proposed here to have the Space Studies Board (SSB) of the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine carry out a study of the current process by which planetary protection policy is developed and recommend actions or options for NASA to consider in ensuring effective US Government coordination on planetary protection. In recent years, the SSB has provided recommendations to NASA on planetary protection requirements for spacecraft missions to Venus, Mars, and the icy satellites of the giant planets. In addition, the SSB has provided recommendations on the planetary protection requirements for spacecraft designed to collect and return to Earth samples from the Earth’s Moon for the Apollo Program, and more recently Venus, Mars, and a variety of small solar system bodies such as moons, comets, and asteroids. Recently, the SSB and the European Science Foundation conducted a joint review of a NASA Mars Exploration Program Analysis Groupâ€™s report on Mars Special Regions: i.e., zones where terrestrial life might proliferate, and thus require visiting spacecraft to return to Viking-era stringency in planetary protection constraints. While the SSB advice has always been directed to NASA, the recommendations have almost always been considered by COSPAR, and many have been adopted internationally; the proposed study may have similar impacts.
Statement of Task
The SSB of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine will appoint an ad hoc committee to carry out a study that will describe how international and national planetary protection policy has been formulated and adopted and identify associated lessons to inform future policy development. Specifically, the committee will assess the current state of planetary protection policy development and the extent to which the current policy-making process is responsive to the present state of science, technology, and engineering, including biological science, as well as the exploration interests of state and nonstate actors. The committeeâ€™s review will lead to recommendations on how to assure the planetary protection policy process is supportive of future scientific and societal interests, and as well as spaceflight missions.
The committee should consider the following questions in carrying out its review:
- How has the planetary protection policy development process evolved over the course of lunar and planetary exploration? What approaches to planetary protection policy development were used in the Apollo and Viking eras of solar
system exploration and subsequent Mars exploration? What factors informed and drove those choices?
- What worthwhile lessons can policymakers take from the history of planetary protection policy development in looking toward future exploration and sample return missions?
- Who are the actors involved in the present-day planetary protection policy development process? What are the respective roles and responsibilities of international organizations, national organizations, and national space agencies (including agenciesâ€™ planetary protection officers), advisory committees, and others in the process?
- How does the current process take into account new scientific and technical knowledge?
- To what extent does the current process consider the interests of state and nonstate actors in exploring planetary environments, including obligations under Article VI of the OST?
- How does the current process reconcile uncertainties in knowledge, differences between scientific and other exploration interests, as well as potentially competing interests?
- What are the barriers, or challenges, that inhibit the process of effective planetary protection policy development?
- What scientific, technical, philosophical, and/or ethical assumptions and values about the importance of avoiding forward contamination of extraterrestrial planetary environments are prioritized in the current planetary protection policy development process?
- What scientific, technical, philosophical, and ethical assumptions and values about the importance of protecting Earth and its environment (“backward contamination”) are prioritized in the current planetary protection policy development process?
- How does the state of scientific understanding of planetary environments and their ability to harbor life inform the current planetary protection policy development process? What scientific knowledge or exploration interests are not taken into account?
- How does the current planetary protection policy development process balance interest in acquiring scientific knowledge of planetary environments to inform future scientific studies, exploration, and planetary protection policy choices with the interest in protecting those environments in the here-and-now?
Looking at both historical and contemporary approaches to planetary protection policy development, the committee should make recommendations about the future of planetary protection policy process development in relation to these questions:
- How could the planetary protection policy development process be made more adaptable to the evolving landscape of knowledge about and myriad interests in planetary environments?
- How can the regulatory environment in the U.S. Government evolve to keep pace with non-governmental spacefaring entities?
- How does a future process evaluate the state of the art and what technologies are required to ensure compliance with planetary protection policy for future missions?
- What risk assessment and/or quality control principles should be applied to ensure that a future process takes into account our understanding of the capabilities of Earth organisms and the potential for extraterrestrial life to be encountered by planetary missions?
A peer reviewed and approved report shall be delivered to NASA on or before December 31, 2017.