Skip to main content

NASA offers new ideas on how to avoid contaminating the moon and Mars

With NASA ramping up efforts to put humans back on the moon and launch the first-ever crewed mission to Mars, the space agency has released information outlining suggested changes to rules on how we protect both places from possible biological contamination during human and robotic missions.

The updated planetary protection policies described in two interim directives from NASA aim to relax existing guidelines that are in place to prevent forward contamination from Earth to the moon and Mars that could disrupt scientific research. In other words, we have to be sure that discoveries in space actually came from space, rather than via a rover or astronaut that may have inadvertently contaminated an area. Reverse contamination is also a consideration, where potentially harmful materials could be brought back to Earth.

The directives focus on NASA’s implementation of obligations to avoid contamination under the Outer Space Treaty, an internationally agreed legal framework drawn up in the 1960s that places limits on the way we explore and use space.

With the next moon mission and possible human exploration of Mars coming ever closer, NASA wants to adjust the way it applies some of the rules, which, as things stand, could prevent some missions from taking place at all.

Speaking during a webinar this week, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said that while future human missions to the lunar surface are only a few years away, some areas will need to be protected more than others from biological contamination.

After water ice was discovered on the moon, it was classified as a Category II celestial body, meaning there’s a risk, albeit a small one, of forward contamination that could hinder future missions.

But, according to the new directive, NASA wants to define only those parts where water is present as Category II, while reclassifying the rest of the lunar surface as Category I, thereby releasing it from stricter protection measures that would allow more freedom for exploration.

Commenting on the moon-focused directive, and with reference to the upcoming crewed mission to the lunar South Pole, NASA’s Thomas Zurbuchen said in a release: “We are enabling our important goal of sustainable exploration of the moon while simultaneously safeguarding future science in the permanently shadowed regions. These sites have immense scientific value in shaping our understanding of the history of our planet, the moon, and the solar system.”

Regarding Mars, Bridenstine said it was important to make some alterations to its current application of the rules otherwise human missions to the red planet would be impossible considering the inevitability of some form of microbial substances being deposited there. But he added that as we’re still in the relatively early stages of Mars exploration, more data was required before NASA can decide with any certainty on where a crewed mission could go, as well as places it should avoid, for example, a location potentially home to liquid water that could host life and therefore should be protected from contamination.

Bridenstine said the new directive “will enable the human exploration of Mars, creating new opportunities for awe-inspiring science and innovative commercial activities.”

NASA thinks it can achieve a crewed landing on Mars in the next two decades, but in the meantime, there’s still plenty of research that needs to be done. An upcoming rover mission set for launch in the coming weeks will play a vital role in helping NASA gather more data about the faraway planet.

Editors' Recommendations

Trevor Mogg
Contributing Editor
Not so many moons ago, Trevor moved from one tea-loving island nation that drives on the left (Britain) to another (Japan)…
NASA’s wild plan to launch a rocket from Mars is ‘like something from an amusement park’
An illustration shows a rocket tossed in the air from the surface of Mars and igniting.

When it comes to missions to Mars, NASA has been on a winning streak in recent decades. Its Spirit, Opportunity, Phoenix, Curiosity, InSight, and Perseverance missions have all landed successfully on the Martian surface, and we're learning more than ever before about how to land on and explore the planet safely. The agency’s next plans for Mars, however, are a whole new level of ambitious. The Perseverance rover has been collecting samples of Mars dust and rock as it travels around, and the aim of the Mars Sample Return mission is to get those samples back to Earth.

The exact design of the mission has changed since it was first announced, but the current plan involves sending a lander to the surface called the Sample Return Lander (SRL) and then getting Perseverance to drop off the samples at this lander. Those samples will be loaded into a rocket inside the lander called the Mars Ascent Vehicle, which will launch into Mars orbit, where it will rendezvous with a spacecraft called the Earth Return Orbiter, which will bring those samples back to Earth.

Read more
NASA’s Mars drone just set another flight record
NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter made a record-breaking 25th flight on April 8, 2022.

NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter has just flown faster than ever over the surface of Mars.

The drone-like flying machine reached a speed of 10 meters per second (22.4 mph) during its 62nd flight on the planet, breaking its previous speed record of 8m/s (17.9 mph) set two flights previously at the end of last month.

Read more
Meet the new NASA communications system that’s hitching a ride in today’s Psyche launch
The flight transceiver for NASA’s Deep Space Optical Communications technology demonstration can be identified by its large tube-like sunshade on the Psyche spacecraft, seen here inside a clean room at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.

The launch today of NASA's Psyche mission to visit a metal asteroid will include an extra bonus, as the spacecraft will carry a test of a new communications system.

Testing Space Lasers for Deep Space Optical Communications (Mission Overview)

Read more