Mars: White House releases new ‘strategies’ for NASA Red Planet exploration

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The White House late last year released a national strategy for planetary protection in a landmark attempt to prevent terrestrial contamination of alien worlds and vice versa. This National Strategy for Planetary Protection was created by the National Space Council and Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).

The paper’s impetus was driven by revolutionary technological advances and the growing influence of private companies in space exploration.

Current and future missions to Mars and other destinations necessitate a strategy to support a safe, sustainable, and predictable Earth and space environment

White House spokesperson

The new protocols have been created to implement a portion of December’s updated National Space Policy.

This called for NASA and other agencies such as the SpaceX to develop new planetary protection guidelines, “working with scientific, commercial, and international partners, for the appropriate protection of planetary bodies and Earth from harmful biological contamination.”

Scott Pace, executive secretary of the National Space Council, wrote: “Current and future missions to Mars and other destinations necessitate a strategy to support a safe, sustainable, and predictable Earth and space environment.

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“By establishing objectives for the implementation of the 2020 National Space Policy’s direction on planetary protection, this strategy continues American leadership in scientific discovery, human exploration, and private sector space activities.”

The planetary protection strategy outlined three key objectives.

The first involved creating a “risk assessment and science-based guidelines” for minimising “forward contamination” – meaning the contamination of alien planets by terrestrial life.

They also urged an assessment of the role of planetary protection to be made in the White House’s payload review process for private space missions.

The second aim attempts to avoid “backward contamination” – the potential contamination of the Earth by any alien life.

This orders space agencies to develop stringent protocols for assessing risks of sample return missions and other sources of backward contamination.

Additionally, a framework for such missions and procedures should be created for the safe handling of extraterrestrial materials.

And the third objective attempts to incorporate the views of the private space sector on planetary protection issues.

This is considered long overdue, especially considering the growing capabilities of companies such as the Elon Musk-owned SpaceX in commissioning missions to other worlds, such as red planet Mars.

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Guidelines have also developed for the authorisation and strict supervision of private sector missions to destinations with planetary protection implications.

And although the strategy does not set any new policy, it does outline work on various issues to be done over the next year.

A White House spokesperson said in a statement: “Really it’s a work plan.

“It’s a strategy laying out work that’s going to be done over the next nine months to a year.”

Planetary protection has traditionally been an issue primarily for US-based space agency NASA.

NASA has been recently racing to update its own planetary protection policies, based on recommendations made by an independent review board last year.

NASA announced six months ago it was issuing new interim directives to both reclassify most of the Moon into a lower category that has no planetary protection requirements.

The administration official added: “We’re very fine with what NASA has done, but the problem is that the NASA rules and interim directives don’t really apply to the private sector.

“The strategy follows what the official described as a ‘light touch’ approach for any planetary protection regulations for private missions.

“We’re trying to find ways so that people can go forward, but to do so safely.”

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