Protecting Planets in the Era of Private Space Exploration
published during a waning crescent moon.

Space bacteria—they’re tiny, invisible, and potentially harmful; even if no one is sure that they actually exist. But for most of the Space Age, NASA and other agencies have treated the possibility of pathogens from space carefully, both during our exploration of other worlds and because of the havoc they could conceivably wreak on Earth. Nowadays, though, there’s a new factor: Elon Musk.

The billionaire entrepreneur dreams of settling thousands of humans on the planet Mars and, oh yeah, he happens to own a rocket company that is slowly building the capability to do so. Musk and other leaders in the commercial space industry are looking at opening up previously unexplored possibilities—asteroid mining, private space stations, package delivery to the moon’s surface. Laudable as these goals are, they are also forcing governments around the world to rethink their space regulations and consider whether they’re up to these impending challenges.

Protecting Planets

Apollo 11 crew in quarantine. Credit: NASA

As ever more players enter the space arena it’s time to make sure that everybody is following the best planetary protection practices. Exploring the universe should happen for the benefit of all, including future generations.

Given that we don’t know if otherworldly microbes are out there, why do we have planetary protection protocols in the first place? It all goes back to the Outer Space Treaty , an international agreement on principles for space exploration, drafted largely by the United States and the Soviet Union, which came into force in 1967. Article Nine of the treaty states that nations seeking to visit other worlds need to “conduct exploration of them so as to avoid their harmful contamination and also adverse changes in the environment of the Earth resulting from the introduction of extraterrestrial matter.”

By and large, most countries, including the U.S., follow procedures set by a Paris-based group called the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR), which has different requirements for microbe cleaning depending on where you want to go. A probe to the moon or an asteroid, which are most likely lifeless, is subject to less stringent scrubbing and baking than one headed to Mars or a watery world like Europa. A sample-return mission, in which some specimen is brought back to Earth, entails the most rigorous precautions. The reason for such care comes from a lesson in recent history. When European explorers reached the New World, it wasn’t superior technological might that did most natives in—pathogenic germs introduced to ill-equipped immune systems are thought to have killed up to 90 percent of the indigenous population.

Protecting Planets

One of the Viking landers being prepared for dry heat sterilization. Credit: NASA

“If there’s the possibility of life on Mars, and you want to bring [a sample] back without actually doing a biohazard protocol, then you’re basically performing a crapshoot that involves everyone on Earth,” says evolutionary ecologist John Rummel. “Most people don’t like that sort of thing.”

Rummel has a great deal of experience with such matters; he has served as NASA’s Planetary Protection Officer not once, but twice, doing a job that he sometimes described as “saving the universe from the scum of the Earth.” Now at the SETI Institute, Rummel recently participated in a National Academies of Science meeting that reviewed current planetary protection requirements and whether or not they need to be updated. He knows that cross-contamination goes both ways.

Saving the universe from the scum of the Earth

If robots or humans accidently brought viable organisms to Mars and they got loose “we would basically destroy the value of the planet and the ability to learn lessons about life,” he says. “NASA wants to follow the rules because they want to preserve their ability to say ‘We’re going to Mars to look for life.’ It’s less compelling to say ‘I’m going to go to Mars to track my own contamination.’”

While government space agencies have an interest in scientific integrity, the case of private companies is a little less clear. Certainly, most entrepreneurs are not looking to ruin Mars for future research but they are also focused on turning a profit. There have already been calls for the elimination of planetary protection rules—albeit from two astrobiologists—claiming that they are too burdensome, costing upwards of $100 million dollars in extra funding. These scientists argue that Mars has already likely been exposed to Earth bacteria so there isn’t much need for further safeguards; though that’s a bit like saying we’ve already spilled tons of crude oil into the ocean so why not just scrap petroleum tanker regulations.

Protecting Planets

This self-portrait of NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover shows the vehicle at the “Quela” drilling location in the “Murray Buttes” area on lower Mount Sharp. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Another line of attack to planetary protection has come from space settlement advocate Robert Zubrin, who has said that Terran and Martian organisms are likely to be too biologically different to do any mutual harm. While this is a possibility, Rummel looks at the example of kudzu, a Japanese vine introduced to the southern United States, which has done untold damage in its spread. On its own, kudzu is completely benign, even edible. But because it outgrows native plants and crops, it has been called “the vine that ate the South.”

At least for the time being, commercial space companies are going to have to adhere to planetary protection policies. Article Six of the Outer Space Treaty states that nations are responsible for “authorization and continuous supervision” of any non-governmental actors in space, i.e. private industry. In the U.S., that means that unless you get a launch and reentry license from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) you will not go to space today. When a company applies for such licenses, the FAA calls together representatives from other federal agencies, including the State Department, the Department of Defense, and NASA, and asks them if the proposed mission will interfere with any international agreements, military activity, or governmental space exploration, respectively.

This process has worked quite well for the last five decades, mostly because commercial space has largely been centered around Earth orbit, where communication satellites live. But as private companies think about visiting other worlds, the FAA is faced with many new questions. Does “continuous supervision” mean the government needs to know every detail of what a commercial mission will be doing on an asteroid? Can it force companies to follow exactly the same protocols as NASA? Right now, nobody really knows the answers to such questions, though many are working on coming up with them. In March, witnesses at a congressional hearing debated whether and how the federal government should regulate all this new commercial space activity.

Protecting Planets

Artist’s concept of Cassini’s flyby of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Credit: NASA/JPL

The path has already been blazed by at least one private company. Last year, Moon Express, which seeks to deliver cargo to the lunar surface, secured the first U.S. government approval for a commercial lander on the moon. “The FAA has determined that the launch of the payload does not jeopardize public health and safety, safety of property, U.S. national security or foreign policy interests, or international obligations of the United States,” the agency said in a statement. Rummel thinks the FAA will likely use their experience with Moon Express as a template for future commercial space mission reviews.

Of course, the moon is one thing; but bigger problems await with Mars. Because it is a potentially habitable world, probes sent to the Red Planet are subject to very strict protection protocols. SpaceX is currently helping NASA plan a sample-return mission using the company’s Red Dragon capsule. Since the government agency follows COSPAR regulations, SpaceX will have to as well. But humans, which both NASA and Elon Musk hope to bring to Mars one day, will require a great deal more thought. Our bodies are host to trillions of microbes and any plants and animals we bring with us will carry their own single-celled hitchhikers.

Rummel says that the regulations will require a certain amount of adaptation, but the problems are not insurmountable. Future Mars visitors will be allowed to go out and explore while still being subject to certain constraints. “It’s a little like a private company that takes people on Antarctic ventures,” he says. “It’s fine to go out on a field trip as long as you don’t touch a penguin.” NASA believes they can come up with landing sites on Mars that have a lower risk of exposing the entire planet to our pests, though no one is certain at this point how quickly such microbes might spread. Researchers at least hope they can prevent Earth life from getting into underground aquifers or start attacking native Martian bacteria. Such problems won’t be easy to overcome. But repeating the mistakes of the past would be much worse than doing nothing.