Very late in the production of this report, following its formal approval and public release of the prepublication version of this report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, previously undisclosed information was brought to the committee’s attention concerning consultations between the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), NASA, and SpaceX on the planetary protection implications of the test flight of the Falcon 9 Heavy launched on February 6, 2018. The paragraphs below were drafted by Dr. Betsy Pugel of NASA’s Office of Planetary Protection—with concurrence from SpaceX; the FAA; and NASA’s Launch Services Program, Office of Safety and Mission Assurance, and Office of International and Interagency Relations—and are presented below unedited.
In August of 2017, NASA responded to the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) interagency license review process regarding the Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) demonstration launch of the Falcon Heavy from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center. At that juncture, the payload and trajectory were only generally defined with no direct reference to a Mars-targeted orbit.
On December 1, 2017, SpaceX founder Elon Musk posted the following information on twitter regarding the aforementioned demonstration launch, “Payload will be my midnight cherry Tesla roadster playing Space Oddity. Destination is Mars orbit. Will be in deep space for a billion years or so if it doesn’t blow up on ascent.” Given the interest by NASA and the broader scientific community about the integrity of celestial bodies where contamination could compromise future science investigations, NASA queried both the FAA and SpaceX regarding the new information. NASA raised the potential for planetary protection implications associated with Mars as a potential target body to the FAA and SpaceX, and requested more information on how SpaceX planned to address planetary protection for the Roadster purported to be headed to a Mars orbit. SpaceX clarified that the Falcon Heavy mission did not include a flyby, orbiter, or lander for a target body, which is consistent with the launch license issued by the FAA for this mission. A spacecraft not encountering another planetary body is not subject to NASA or COSPAR planetary protection policy.
Using limited trajectory information provided from SpaceX to NASA via the FAA, NASA conducted limited long-term propagations of Tesla Roadster trajectories, primarily to assess immediate potential risks to NASA’s scientific assets. Those trajectories could not be rendered into standard probability of impact calculations to assess longer-term risks to scientific assets beyond the immediate launch window. Consequently, NASA formally responded back to the FAA on January 22, 2018, that although NASA was not in a position to confirm the probability of an impact on Mars, NASA noted that SpaceX’s information implied a consistency with international guidelines on planetary protection. The FAA issued the launch license for this mission on February 2, 2018.
We have previously seen that there is value in conducting standard longer-term propagations of the probability of impact of a spacecraft or launch vehicle hardware, including zero velocity returns of hardware. One example is the return of the Apollo 12 Saturn S-IVB third stage (COSPAR Object Identifier J002E3). Launched in 1971, in 2002 it was thought to be a new asteroid, J002E3. It was confirmed to be the Apollo 12 third stage and is now known to be in a 40 year cycle between heliocentric and geocentric orbit. This object could eventually reenter the Earth’s atmosphere and represented a known example of why long-term propagations on the order of several decades are conducted in assessing probability of impact for target bodies of biological interest, such as Mars.
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