NASA updates rules for Moon, Mars missions to ensure Earth's microbes don't hitch a ride with robots, humans
NASA has reworked its plans to protect the Moon and Mars from microbes and other substances that usually hitch a ride on missions
NASA has its hands full preparing for its upcoming missions — from getting humans back to the Moon to sending robots and humans to Mars and other planetary bodies. But they are also taking time to ensure that none of the space agency's activities introduce Earth's germs into the distant worlds.
The space agency has reworked its plans to protect the Moon and Mars from microbes and other substances that might hitch a ride with robots and humans. They have released two documents: the first deals with controlling biological contamination from NASA and its affiliated missions to the lunar body, which includes landing and orbiting. The second addresses the same concerns during human missions to Mars. It also covers the crossover of any Martian lifeform back to our planet.
"We are enabling our important goal of sustainable exploration of the Moon while simultaneously safeguarding future science in the permanently shadowed regions," Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in a statement. "These sites have immense scientific value in shaping our understanding of the history of our planet, the Moon and the solar system," he added.
The space agency has updated its policies or directives that it calls NASA Interim Directives (NIDs). NASA Chief Jim Bridenstine said the future missions would have to make a list of every kind of substance — biological and nonbiological — left behind on a different world. Without the list, scientists might think an organism accidentally carried by Earth belonged to a distant land. It could compromise future discovery, he said, during a "Moon Dialogs" webinar.
"We're gonna go to the moon, and we're gonna, in fact, stay at the moon. And certain parts of the moon, from a scientific perspective, need to be protected more than other parts of the moon from forward biological contamination," he continued.
Bridenstine added that the policies aim to strike a balance between the interests of the science community, the human exploration community and the commercial community. NASA's Office of Planetary Protection supports responsible space exploration. The body, which is housed within the Office of Safety and Mission Assurance, will ensure that these directives are complied with, he added.
"It's vital that NASA's regulations remain synchronized with our capabilities and plans," said Bridenstine. "This NID will enable human exploration of Mars, creating new opportunities for awe-inspiring science and innovative commercial activities. I believe science and human exploration are complimentary endeavors, and I’m excited to see these policy reforms open up a new era of discovery."
In 2019, Earth's toughest organism called tardigrades, also known as water bears, may have crash-landed on the lunar body after an Israeli spacecraft carrying them exploded. Scientists believe they may have survived the accident. These organisms can cope with freezing temperatures, dangerous solar winds and even an oxygen-free space vacuum. "My guess is that if we went up in the next year or so, recovered the wreckage, and found these tiny, little tuns and put them in water, a few of them would come back to life," Mark Martin, an associate professor of biology at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, told LiveScience.