Assessment of Planetary Protection Requirements for Mars Sample Return Missions, National Research Council, National Academies Press, 2009, 80pp, £14.99, ISBN 978-0-309-13073-8 [softback]
The need to protect the Moon and other planetary bodies from contamination carried by spacecraft from Earth was realised early in the Space Age and lunar probes were variously cleaned, swabbed and heated to high temperatures in an attempt to kill any biological specimens picked up in the cleanroom or at the launch pad. Since then, the field of Planetary Protection has evolved into internationally agreed guidelines and policies that mainly aim to preclude the scientific faux pas of the ‘false positive’ (the detection of life on another planet that the spacecraft had actually carried from Earth).
Today, the increasing possibility of engineering a Mars sample return mission, which could bring Mars rocks back to Earth for example, requires a reassessment of the Planetary Protection regime, and that is the subject of this report. In common with other NRC reports, it begins with an executive summary, ends with a letter of instruction and committee biographies, and is fully referenced to allow further research. It is illustrated with a number of colour photos of Martian landscapes, micrographs of Mars meteorites and examples of “Mars-analog samples” from representative terrestrial sites.
Among other things, the report recommends that planning for a sample-receiving facility (on Earth) should be “included in the earliest phases of the Mars sample return mission”, that it should be completed at least two years prior to the return of samples, and that the public “should be informed about all aspects of Mars sample return…”. Of course, science fiction has already covered the worst case scenarios; now it is time to ensure that the worst does not happen. This report represents one of the first serious attempts to make it so.