Our Club welcomed Dr Amanda Hendrix of the Planetary Science Institute, who spoke to us from Colorado to make the case that planetary protection rules can be relaxed. Not all were convinced however.
Planetary protection deals with trying to prevent terrestrial microorganisms establishing a foothold on other worlds and vice versa. The primary goal is to protect the viability of future search-for-life experiments, so they are not confounded by potential terrestrial microbes. Since the 1970’s, spacecraft bound for places that scientists think may be hospitable to life, first and foremost Mars, must undergo rigorous pre-launch cleaning procedures.
Amanda is joint author of an influential report commissioned by NASA. It suggests current planetary protection rules are outdated and proposes a risk management approach. This would make portions of Mars more accessible to both commercial and government missions, whilst remaining careful about access to potential habitable zones.
Several participants in the Zoom meeting found the idea bothersome. A comparison was made with the diseases that Europeans introduced to the Americas: “Have we learned anything from history?” Amanda acknowledged the validity of the concern and offered reassurance that search-for-life experiments would not be compromised if the proposed new procedures were implemented. She was keen to offer re-assurance that the idea of the committee and the report is to provide scientifically-based guidance to NASA with concerns of planetary protection in mind, and that she is advising NASA to take the next steps with caution.
A summary of the report, “Evaluation of Bioburden Requirements for Mars Missions”, produced by the National Academies Committee on Planetary Protection can be found here.
Dr Hendrix, as the co-chair of the National Academies Committee on Planetary Protection, was charged with determining whether these rules can now be loosened.
Dr Hendrix spent many years at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, including two years as the Cassini Deputy Project Scientist, and has been part of many planetary science missions, including the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.