A newly published report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine seeks to simplify the planetary protection requirements for certain locations on Mars in order to allow robotic missions access to key sites where evidence of life might exist.
PSI senior scientist Amanda Hendrix, who is also the co-chair for the Committee on Planetary Protection, explains: Currently, meeting planetary protection requirements – for instance, using rigorous sterilization techniques – can be seen as imposing, costly and complex, and it could be that these restrictions can be simplified and modernized, in some cases, which can help make some areas of Mars more accessible. The report suggests techniques for modernizing and providing flexibility in planetary protection implementation. One way to do this is by utilizing a risk management approach that could be tailored to individual missions’ needs. The Committee’s findings can lead to making portions of Mars more accessible to both commercial and government endeavors by relaxing planetary protection requirements while remaining careful about access to potential habitable zones.
That isn’t to say that the report says to throw away all the planetary protection requirements. Missions should still be a conservative distance from places where the subsurface of Mars could be accessed, such as cave openings. And missions would still have to go through standard aerospace cleanroom practices to avoid bringing contaminants as much as possible.
These proposed changes would only apply to NASA missions, not commercial missions or missions from other nations in which NASA does not participate. And there are still issues with the Outer Space Treaty (remember, that’s a thing) to deal with. We’ll see where this proposal leads, but it might be years before it affects any possible missions.
NASEM press release
PSI press release
“Report Series: Committee on Planetary Protection: Evaluation of Bioburden Requirements for Mars Missions,” National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 7 October 2021, The National Academies Press