NASA rules that govern the potential spread of earthly microbes to other planets—and the potential return of alien life back to Earth—are often anachronistic and require broad rethinking, according to a report released today by an independent agency advisory panel.
Planetary protection, as such efforts are known, remains a worthy goal, the report emphasizes. But many of the ways it is implemented, which date back to rules conceived at the beginning of the space age, have driven costly and sometimes questionable efforts, and do not make sense given current scientific knowledge, says Alan Stern, a planetary scientist from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, who led the 12-member panel reviewing NASA’s efforts. “We want to move from this 1960s–70s point of view that all of Mars was treated one way.” Planetary surfaces are more nuanced than that, he says.
Concerns over planetary protection have often seen NASA make great efforts to prevent microbes from going to space. Its martian robots are assembled in cleanrooms, with many components baked in ovens or doused in chemicals. Famously, its Viking landers for Mars in the 1970s were baked in purpose-built ovens. But these protections have often been costly and, in the view of some scientists, overly burdensome.