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October 7, 2021

from Planetary Science Institute

At a press conference on the 53 institute’s leading scientist Amanda Hendrix.

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The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report identifies criteria that could allow robotic missions to specific locations on Mars with less restrictive “bioburden” requirements designed to prevent harmful contamination by earth-based microbes Mars.

“The Committee on Planetary Protection, a standing committee of the National Academies Space Studies Board, has been hired by NASA to write a report discussing criteria that could be used to determine regions on Mars , where missions may have less stringent bioburden requirements than currently, meeting planetary protection requirements – for example through rigorous sterilization techniques – can be viewed as imposing, costly and complex, and these constraints could be simplified in some cases and can be modernized, which can help make some areas more accessible to Mars, “said Hendrix, co-chair of the committee that authored the report.

” The report suggests techniques to modernize and provide flexibility the implementation of planetary protection – one way to achieve this It is about using a risk management approach that could be tailored to meet the needs of each mission, ”said Hendrix. “The committee’s findings can lead to parts of Mars becoming more accessible to both commercial and government efforts by easing planetary protection requirements while remaining wary of access to potentially habitable zones.”

In this report, the Committee focused on regions on Mars that may not be adversely affected if visited by non-strictly sterilized spacecraft. For missions that do not have access to the subsurface, such regions could comprise a significant portion of the Martian surface, since the UV environment is so biocidal that in most cases terrestrial organisms are unlikely to survive more than a sol or two, or days of Mars . For missions with underground access (up to 1 meter), regions on Mars that are expected to have patchy or no water ice below the surface could also be visited by spacecraft that meet less stringent bioburden requirements, as such patchy ice is unlikely to be conducive to the proliferation of terrestrial microorganisms.

The report notes that it is imperative that any mission sent to Mars with reduced bioburden requirements maintains a certain conservative distance from underground access points such as cave openings. In addition, these missions with relaxed bioburden requirements, even if less stringent than current requirements, would still require a certain level of cleanliness that could be achieved, for example, with standard aerospace cleanliness practices.

“The whole purpose of planetary protection protocols is to minimize the risk of harmful contamination. This means minimizing the risk of introducing biological material on Earth that could disrupt future experiments to discover life. This is really important in the case of Mars, ”said Hendrix. “On Mars we know that the surface is almost certainly uninhabitable for terrestrial microorganisms due to the harsh UV environment; however, subterranean regions such as caves that are shielded from radiation could be habitable zones for terrestrial and / or indigenous Martian life.

“The report will help find life on Mars by identifying those areas on its surface that need spacecraft protection standards to be most restrictive,” said Hendrix. “Also, by potentially relieving the burden on planetary protection from exploring other areas, NASA could facilitate more missions to Mars that will help us understand the planet and its environment, even if those missions are not pursuing astrobiological studies.”

The results of the committee apply specifically to missions for which NASA is responsible for protecting the planets. For commercial missions where NASA has no role or liaison, the U.S. government still needs to designate a regulator to approve and continuously monitor space activities under the Space Treaty, the report said. The study was funded by NASA.

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