As we send rovers and landers to other worlds, we have to think about the tiny microbial astronauts we’re sending along with us. In fact, NASA is so concerned about infecting other worlds that it has established the planetary protection protocols. Just to be safe.
NASA has always had its fingers in many different pies. This should come as no surprise, since the advancement of science and the exploration of the Universe requires a multi-faceted approach. So in addition to studying Earth and distant planets, the also study infectious diseases and medical treatments, and ensuring that food, water and vehicles are safe. But protecting Earth and other planets from contamination, that’s a rather special job!
For decades, this responsibility has fallen to the NASA Office of Planetary Protection, the head of which is known as the Planetary Protection Officer (PPO). Last month, NASA announced that it was looking for a new PPO, the person whose job it will be to ensure that future missions to other planets don’t contaminate them with microbes that have come along for the ride, and that return missions don’t bring extra-terrestrial microbes back to Earth.
Since the beginning of the Space Age, federal agencies have understood that any and all missions carried with them the risk of contamination. Aside from the possibility that robotic or crewed missions might transport Earth microbes to foreign planets (and thus disrupt any natural life cycles there), it was also understood that missions returning from other bodies could bring potentially harmful organisms back to Earth.
As such, the Office of Planetary Protection was established in 1967 to ensure that these risks were mitigated using proper safety and sterilization protocols. This was shortly after the United Nation’s Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) drafted the Outer Space Treaty, which was signed by the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union (as of 2017, 107 countries have become party to the treaty).
The goals of the Office of Planetary Protection are consistent with Article IX of the Outer Space Treaty; specifically, the part which states:
“States Parties to the Treaty shall pursue studies of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, and 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 and, where necessary, shall adopt appropriate measures for this purpose.”
For decades, these directives have been followed to ensure that missions to the Moon, Mars and the Outer Solar System did not threaten these extra-terrestrial environments. For example, after eight years studying Jupiter and its largest moons, the Galileo probe was deliberately crashed into Jupiter’s atmosphere to ensure that none of its moons (which could harbor life beneath their icy surfaces) were contaminated by Earth-based microbes.
The same procedure will be followed by the Juno mission, which is currently in orbit around Jupiter. Barring a possible mission extension, the probe is scheduled to be deorbited after conducting a total of 12 orbits of the gas giant. This will take place in July of 2018, at which point, the craft will burn up to avoid contaminating the Jovian moons of Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.
The same holds true for the Cassinispacecraft, which is currently passing between Saturn and its system of rings, as part of the mission’s Grand Finale. When this phase of its mission is complete – on September 15th, 2017 – the probe will be deorbited into Saturn’s atmosphere to prevent any microbes from reaching Enceladus, Titan, Dione, moons that may also support life in their interiors (or in Titan’s case, even on its surface!)
To be fair, the position of a Planetary Protection Officer is not unique to NASA. The European Space Agency (ESA), the Japanese Aerospace and Exploration Agency (JAXA) and other space agencies have similar positions. However, it is only within NASA and the ESA that it is considered to be a full-time job. The position is held for three years (with a possible extension to five) and is compensated to the tune of $124,406 to $187,000 per year.
The job, which can be applied for on USAJOBS.gov (and not through the Office of Planetary Protection), will remain open until August 18th, 2017. According to the posting, the PPO will be responsible for:
Leading planning and coordinating activities related to NASA mission planetary protection needs.
Leading independent evaluation of, and providing advice regarding, compliance by robotic and human spaceflight missions with NASA planetary protection policies, statutory requirements and international obligations.
Advising the Chief, SMA and other officials regarding the merit and implications of programmatic decisions involving risks to planetary protection objectives.
In coordination with relevant offices, leading interactions with COSPAR, National Academies, and advisory committees on planetary protection matters.
Recommending and leading the preparation of new or revised NASA standards and directives in accordance with established processes and guidelines.
What’s more, the fact that NASA is advertising the position is partly due to some recent changes to the role. As Catharine Conley*, NASA’s only planetary protection officer since 2014, indicated in a recent interview with Business Insider: “This new job ad is a result of relocating the position I currently hold to the Office of Safety and Mission Assurance, which is an independent technical authority within NASA.”
While the position has been undeniably important in the past, it is expected to become of even greater importance given NASA’s planned activities for the future. This includes NASA’s proposed “Journey to Mars“, a crewed mission which will see humans setting foot on the Red Planet sometime in the 2030s. And in just a few years time, the Mars 2020 rover is scheduled to begin searching the Martian surface for signs of life.
As part of this mission, the Mars 2020 rover will collect soil samples and place them in a cache to be retrieved by astronauts during the later crewed mission. Beyond Mars, NASA also hopes to conduct mission to Europa, Enceladus and Titan to look for signs of life. Each of these worlds have the necessary ingredients, which includes the prebiotic chemistry and geothermal energy necessary to support basic lifeforms.
Given that we intend to expand our horizons and explore increasingly exotic environments in the future – which could finally lead to the discovery of life beyond Earth – it only makes sense that the role of the Planetary Protection Officer become more prominent. If you think you’ve got the chops for it, and don’t mind a six-figure salary, be sure to apply soon!
*According to BI, Conley has not indicated if she will apply for the position again.
After four years on Mars, the Curiosity rover has made some pretty impressive discoveries. These have ranged from characterizing what Mars’ atmosphere was like billions of years ago to discovering organic molecules and methane there today. But arguably the biggest discovery Curiosity has made has been uncovering evidence of warm, flowing water on Mars’ surface.
Unfortunately, now faced with what could be signs of water directly in its path, NASA is forced to enact strict protocols. These signs take the form of dark streaks that have been observed along the sloping terrain of Aeolis Mons (aka. Mount Sharp), which the rover has been preparing to climb. In order to prevent contamination, the rover must avoid any contact with them, which could mean a serious diversion.
These sorts of dark streaks are known as recurring slope lineae (RSLs) because of their tendency to appear, fade away and reappear seasonally on steep slopes. The first RSLs were reported in 2011 by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in a variety of locations, and are now seen as proof that water still periodically flows on Mars (albiet in the form of salt-water).
Since that time, a total of 452 possible RSLs have been observed, mostly in Mars’s southern mid-latitudes or near the equator (particularly in Mars’ Valles Marineris). They are generally a few meters wide, and appear to lengthen at the warmest times of the year, then fade during the colder times.
These seasonal flows of salt water are believed to have come from ice trapped about a meter below the surface. Ordinarily, such features would present an opportunity to conduct research. But doing so would cause the water source to be contaminated by Earth microbes aboard Curiosity. And right now, Curiosity has bigger fish to fry (so to speak).
During its planned climb, Curiosity was supposed to pass within a few kilometers of an RSL. However, if NASA determines that the risk is too high, the rover will have to alter its course. Unfortunately, that presents a major challenge, since there is currently only one clear route between Curiosity’s current location and its next destination.
But then again, Curiosity may not have to alter its course at all. Or it could find a route that lets it still accomplish its scientific goals, depending on the circumstances. As Ashwin R. Vasavada, the Project Scientist at the Mars Science Laboratory, told Universe Today via email:
“It may depend on the distance between the rover and a potentially sensitive region, for example. Based on that understanding, we’ll determine the right course of action. For example, it may be possible to achieve Curiosity’s science goals while maintaining a safe distance. Another possible outcome is that we determine that there are no Recurring Slope Lineae on Mount Sharp.”
For years, NASA scientists have been seeking to obtain samples from different locations around Mount Sharp. By studying the sedimentary deposits in the mountainside, the rover’s science team hopes to see how Mars’ environment changed over the past 3 billion years. As Vasavada explained:
“Curiosity’s science mission has focused on understanding whether the area around 5-km high Mount Sharp ever had conditions suitable for life. We’ve already found evidence for an ancient, 3-billion-year-old habitable environment out on the plains around the mountain, and in the lowest levels of the mountain.”
“The geology indicates that a series of lakes once was present in the basin of the crater, before the mountain took shape. Curiosity will continue climbing lower Mount Sharp to see how long these habitable conditions lasted. Every step higher we go, we encounter rocks that are a bit younger, but still around 3 billion years old.”
In the end, the job of determining the risk falls to NASA’s Planetary Protection Office. In addition to reviewing the current predicament, the issue of pre-mission safety standards is also likely to come up. Prior to its deployment to Mars, the Curiosity rover was only partially sterilized, and it is currently unknown how long Earth microbes could survive in the Martian atmosphere, or how far they could be carried in Mars’ atmosphere.
Answering these questions and coming up with new protocols that will address them in advance will come in handy for future missions – particularly the Mars 2020 Rover mission. In the course of its mission, which will include obtaining samples and leaving them behind for possible retrieval by a future crewed mission, the rover is likely to encounter several RSLs.
One of the Mars 2020 rover’s primary tasks will be finding evidence of microbial life, so ensuring that Earth microbes don’t get in the way will be of extreme importance. And with crewed missions on the horizon, knowing how we can prevent contaminating Mars with our own germs (of which there are many) is paramount!
On its currently project path, the Curiosity rover would not get closer than 2 km from the potential RSL (which it is currently 5 km from). And as Vasavada indicated, it is not known at the present time what alternate routes Curiosity could take, or if a diversion in the rover’s path will effect it’s overall mission.
“It’s unclear at this time,” he said. “But I’m optimistic that we can find a solution that protects Mars, allows us to accomplish our mission goals, and even gives us new insight into modern water on Mars, if it is there.”
Europa is probably the best place in the Solar System to go searching for life. But before they’re launched, any spacecraft we send will need to be squeaky clean so don’t contaminate the place with our filthy Earth bacteria. Continue reading “Will We Contaminate Europa?”