Ever since NASA has started sending spacecraft to other planetary bodies, we have had a system in place to make sure life here on Earth doesn’t tag along for the trip. This has been left up to NASA historically, but now the National Space Council is working on their own set of guidelines for commercial and governmental agencies to use.
This policy has been in the work since July 2020 to “assess, coordinate, and implement national priorities” for planetary protection. This newly published document is the outcome. No new actual policies are stated in it, however, as it’s more of a list of challenges that need to be figured out.
The protection needed goes both ways, according to the document. We need to do what we can on Earth to protect other planetary bodies before sending spacecraft to them, and when spacecraft come back, ensuring nothing arrives that we don’t want.
This was an issue that first arose during the Apollo program when some doctors weren’t sure if the Apollo 11 and 12 astronauts where going to bring back any Moon germs with them. When they returned, they had to put on special environmental protection suits and enter a quarantine unit.
Currently, the main concern is trying not to contaminate samples taken from other planets. Poor practice in decontaminating spacecraft looking for life could lead to false positives, and the accidental spread of life could ruin future scientific research on that planet.
So far NASA has been the only agency facing with this kind of issue, but now we are seeing more and more commercial companies making plans to land spacecraft on other planetary bodies. The U.S. wants to make sure everyone follows a certain set of rules to contain any life forms found on the planet from which they belong.
The document released by the White House doesn’t state when we will get the final list of new policies. Of course, with the upcoming administration change, this could be thrown out completely, meaning we may not see anything come from this. The next step for the working group is to collaborate with other federal agencies including NASA, CDC, FAA, and EPA to determine what the best path forward is for crafting the new policy.
Top image of NASA’s Orion spacecraft on display at White House via AP