NASA needs to clean up its act when exploring other planets, report finds

6 Jul 2018

Nithin Abraham, a coatings engineer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, part of a contamination control team tasked with ensuring the James Webb Space Telescope remains as clean as possible during its testing. Image: NASA/Chris Gunn

NASA’s rules regarding potential contamination of other planets are woefully out of date, according to a new independent report.

In our search for evidence of life in the solar system, NASA has gone to considerable lengths to follow a strict set of rules to make sure that we don’t accidentally carry microbes and other forms of life on board spacecraft that could contaminate a pristine planet.

However, as recent findings have shown, microscopic creatures such as the tardigrade are capable of surviving the rigours of space for decades and return relatively unscathed, thereby throwing into question our current contamination prevention methods.

Now, a new report published by the US National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine has called out NASA as being in major need of an update to its 50-year-old guidelines.

As you can imagine, space exploration has changed drastically since this policy was first written, most notably the entrance of a number of private space companies both rivalling and working with the likes of NASA.

According to, the report calls on the space agency to develop a new strategic plan for planetary protection, one that will not only prevent humans from contaminating other planets and messing up our scientific readings, but also prevent any potential alien bacteria from reaching Earth and potentially causing an ecological catastrophe.

One of the big talking points of the report is the planned missions to Jupiter’s moon, Europa, with a potential lander in development, in addition to the next Martian rover due for launch in 2020.

There is also the matter of future crewed missions to Mars and beyond, which, while lowered in priority in recent years in favour of going back to the moon, will need to be secured from any potential contamination found on an astronaut’s boot, for example.

The constitution of space

The actual document that NASA is working from is the Outer Space Treaty, a quasi-constitution of space guaranteeing certain freedoms. These include space being for every human and the prevention of nations from turning our orbit into a battlefield.

It also discusses planetary contamination, but doesn’t go into much detail bar saying we must prevent “adverse changes in the environment of the Earth resulting from the introduction of extraterrestrial matter”.

A major thing missing from the existing treaty is the role of the private space sector, with the authors of the report calling on the US government to draft legislation that would give the go-ahead for what is actually launched into space.

The most pressing example was the launch of a Tesla Roadster on board SpaceX’s Falcon 9 Heavy rocket, with the cargo remaining a surprise to everyone not directly involved in the project.

So far, this remains only a recommendation but it does certainly give NASA and other space agencies something to think about in the years ahead.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic