Two Mars landings are planned for 2021. First, NASA’s Perseverance rover is slated to land on the planet later this month. Then China’s Tianwen Rover will follow in May. Both missions aim to search the planet for signs of life.
But how do we make sure that nothing unwanted lands with them when our landers hit the surface of the red planet? If we’re not careful, we could spread all kinds of life – like in 2019, when a spaceship with a cargo of tiny, almost indestructible life forms, called tardigrades, crashed onto the lunar surface.
The good thing is, we have policies and laws to prevent this from happening. In fact, there is a whole section of space law called planet protection, which is designed to prevent planets, moons, comets and asteroids from being contaminated.
Government organizations have adhered to generally accepted rules and laws for 50 years. But they’re no longer the only players in the game. More and more commercial space missions are starting.
This bacterium was only found in two clean rooms. NASA / JPL-Caltech, CC BY
There are two variants of planetary protection called forward and backward. The former concerns the contamination of other planets by material from the earth. This of course protects every life on this planet. But it also means that scientists can be fairly certain that any signs of life they discover are actually signs of “extraterrestrial” life and have not been transplanted from Earth.
To achieve this, the rooms where spacecraft are made and assembled are some of the cleanest places on earth. The facilities are regularly tested for biological contamination and often produce surprising results. In 2013, a completely new type of bacteria was found in two clean rooms about 4,000 km apart. The life form that thrives on eating very little has not been found anywhere else on earth.[Read: How much does it cost to buy, own, and run an EV? It’s not as much as you think]
Reverse contamination prevents the earth from being contaminated by extraterrestrial material that has obstructed a return journey. When the Apollo 11 astronauts landed back on Earth in 1969, they spent three weeks in quarantine to make sure they weren’t bringing anything dangerous back from the moon. Neil Armstrong even celebrated his 39th birthday there.
We have learned a lot more about the moon since then and it is widely considered to be microbe free. The chances of bringing something back to Earth would be much greater if missions were to bring samples or people back from Mars.
Nixon greeted the quarantined astronauts. NASA, CC BY
Planet protection has a long history. The Committee for Space Research (COSPAR), an international non-governmental organization, began discussing it as early as the 1950s when planned missions to the moon raised concerns about the potential for contamination for later scientific investigations.
Since then, COSPAR’s planetary protection policy with its scientific guidelines and recommendations has become the internationally recognized “gold standard”. It categorizes planets and moons according to their life potential or signs of life in the past or present. The greater the life potential, the greater the protective measures. This categorization means that Mars is better protected than the moon.
This means that missions to higher category bodies will require more sterilization to ensure fewer potential contaminants travel. This can also affect end-of-life plans for missions. NASA’s Juno probe will crash against Jupiter in July to avoid possible contamination of Europe or one of the other moons.
However, as a product of a non-governmental organization, the COSPAR Directive is not legally binding. It is what lawyers refer to as “soft law”. This means that it does not have the force of a legally binding agreement but is nonetheless recognized as an important guideline that should be followed.
However, we are obliged under international law to avoid harmful contamination of space, the moon and other celestial bodies as well as the earth. This is due to the 1967 Space Treaty.
While the treaty says that “harmful contamination” should be avoided, it does not define what this means. However, the past 50 years have generated quite a strong expectation that future missions will adhere to these principles.
In addition, the obligation has a social and moral aspect. Space scientists expect missions to adhere to the principles of planetary protection. In order not to do so, you risk condemnation by the scientific community.
Non-state space travel
The days of beyond orbit space explored only by government scientific operations are coming to an end. Private companies are increasingly venturing further away from our planet. The 2019 moon landing attempt, which may have contaminated the moon, was carried out by a private company called SpaceIL. Elon Musk’s SpaceX aims to launch missions to Mars.
This does not mean that space will become a lawless wild west as states are responsible for the activities of their nationals in space. You need to approve and continuously monitor these activities. If the damage is done, the state, not the private company, is liable. However, many states include insurance policies as part of the licensing process.
SpaceX aims at Mars. SpaceX, CC BY-NC
How this will play out is difficult to predict, especially given the limited, directly relevant precedent. However, the general approach taken by the US government to date is encouraging. Recently, NASA updated its planetary protection policy to explicitly state that it implements the United States’ obligations under the Space Treaty.
Based on this, it is reasonable to assume that a US-issued license would require compliance with NASA’s planet protection guidelines, which are largely in line with the COPSAR directive.
This is not guaranteed to last forever. Attempts have already been made at the US Congress to possibly exempt private actors from the requirements of planetary protection. This was part of a 2018 law designed to reduce the “regulatory burden” on the commercial space industry. The effort failed, but those who supported it might try again.
Planet protection is important to preserve the scientific value of space. Scientific interest isn’t the only reason why you want to explore space, however – there are many others. What is the balance needs to be considered, but it is a debate that requires broad participation.
This article by Thomas Cheney, professor of space governance at the Open University, is republished by The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read the original article.