NASA’s exploits have a two-fold purpose: national defense and space exploration. The same holds true today with the inception of its newest office and position. In the last week of July 2017, NASA announced its newest position, Planetary Protection Officer, with applications due in mid-August. Nearly 60 years ago, NASA’s inception in October 1958 began with preamble: “An Act to provide for research into the problems of flight within and outside the Earth's atmosphere, and for other purposes."
Planetary Protection Office
NASA’s planetary protection office has its roots in agreements made during the 1967 United Nations “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and the Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Bodies.” The idea was that all countries who participated were to conduct exploration of cosmic bodies in a manner that avoids harmful contamination. NASA’s Planetary Protection Office took that a step further: to protect other galactic bodies, such as planets, moons, asteroids, comets from contamination by Earth life and to protect the Earth from contamination by alien life forms.
Alien Life Forms
When NASA mentions alien life forms, little gray men with enlarged heads and eyes are the first images that leap to mind. But alien life forms also mean bacteria or viruses that could have a deadly effect on nature and human life. Just like in the days of early Spanish explorers to the new world, many indigenous peoples died from contact with European viruses and diseases, virtually unknown in the Americas.
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The Importance of Planetary Protection
NASA cites the importance of planetary protection as follows:
- Prevent contamination that obscures NASA’s ability to study other worlds
- To maintain the ability to study cosmic bodies in their natural states
- Prevent the pollution that would keep us from finding alien life, if it exists, and to
- Take precautions to protect Earth’s biosphere in case NASA does discover alien life.
NASA describes it by calling it forward and backward contamination: forward into space and backwards to Earth.
The OPP defines the objectives for individual space exploration missions based on the available scientific data and advice from NASA, international space exploration guidelines and the Space Studies Board. For categorization purposes, each mission is defined by its planned encounter type, such as flyby, orbiting, or landing, and the destination such as moon, comet, planetary body and more.
For example, when NASA views the target destination as having the possibility to provide information about life, or exists in a pre-life chemical state, spacecrafts visiting the destination must meet a stringent level of cleanliness. For cosmic bodies that can support Earth life, the spacecraft must undergo a stringent cleaning and sterilization, and operating restrictions are greater.
If you ever watched “Star Trek,” you know that the OPP’s mission objectives align very closely with the Federation’s Prime Directive; the main theme being to do no harm and not interfere with alien life evolution or societies.
Planetary Protection Mission Categories
Each OPP mission is defined under three headings as follows:
- Planetary body type
- Target destinations or locations and
- Mission type and mission categories
A Visit to Mars
The office also has special categories for Mars defined by mission type and category as well:
- Lander systems without equipment for evaluating life
- Lander systems created to investigation life on Mars
- Special regions investigations
NASA further defines special regions of Mars to include areas:
- Without life detection experiments planned
- Areas where life might replicate
- Areas where NASA expects life might be
The OPP has defined five classification of mission categories that include:
- Type I where no protections are needed
- Type II possible origins of pre-life or life conditions with remote chance of contamination
- Type III in which there exists a significant chance of contamination
- Type IV Chances of contamination that might jeopardize future “biological exploration"
- Type V Defines the situation where the spacecraft returns to Earth into two further subcategories: unrestricted and restricted Earth returns
So the person chosen for this three-year, possibly five-year appointment – with the potential for it to become permanent – must ensure that these policies and guidelines are upheld and followed for each mission.
When NASA astronauts and scientists go on a mission to visit a planetary body, such as Mars, for example, they are the aliens invading that location. The same holds true for when they return bringing back with them samples of cellular life, bacteria or even rocks. While NASA isn’t expecting an alien invasion any time soon, setting stringent protections can prevent unmitigated disasters from occurring both here on Earth and elsewhere in space.