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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.

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Trevor Mogg
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