Protecting Both Mars and Earth


viking lander
Viking lander being prepared for dry heat sterilization credit:NASA

By Margaret Race, Senior Research Scientist

Whether you read the book or see the movie, The Martian gives you a sense of the complex science, technology, and operations needed to keep humans alive on Mars.  Now, consider preparing for the real Mars missions – and imagine the risks that must be addressed!

Planetary Protection is one of the important considerations.  Like environmental and health requirements on Earth, planetary protection measures are mandatory controls intended to avoid or minimize harmful cross-contamination that could adversely impact the crew, the martian environment, or the Earth upon return. 

Recently, I  helped organize and convene a NASA workshop on “Planetary Protection Knowledge Gaps for Human Extraterrestrial Missions.”  The workshop aimed to identify specific areas where research and technology development (R&TD) are needed for safe human missions.  During the workshop, 85 interdisciplinary experts divided into specialized sub-groups to discuss contamination concerns. 

One group focused on techniques for monitoring growth and survivability of human- associated microbes in space, and the microbiome research needed to detect extraterrestrial perturbations. They also examined crew quarantine measures and potential impacts from martian materials.  

A second group reviewed technologies for cleaning, sterilization and prevention of recontamination during missions.  They also discussed mitigation of spacecraft and system effluents along with contamination control for rovers and spacesuits. 

The final group discussed natural transport mechanisms on Mars’ surface to understand the potential for sterilization by martian conditions, the possible spread of vented and leaked microbes, and environmental clean-up of inadvertent releases of terrestrial materials.  

Workshop findings will be published in a NASA report later in 2015.   Additional information about key R&TD areas will also be posted on  NASA’s Planetary Protection website: