Planetary Protection

by Theodore R. Frimet

Planetary Protection

and then there were none

There are some pretty cool things that come into your email inbox, from time to time. And September 24th was no exception. Hailing from The National Academies of Science Engineering Medicine, I am alerted to the latest publication. Prima facie my chosen topic preference appears to now be available by purchase, or free PDF download. Enter Review and Assessment of Planetary Protection Policy Development Processes. And of course, I am giddy with happiness as I download the free PDF. To learn more, please visit

There are historical and modern approaches to planetary protection, and I would be happy to touch upon a few salient points. But first, let me break the hearts of all Amateurs, and Professional’s alike. Planetary Protection is not about Space Force, or destroying minor planets or asteroids before Earth doomsday impacts. It is more akin to making sure that as we explore our outer worlds, that we do not bring Earth bound contaminants with us. How unhappy would we be, if first contact with biological trace on Mars, was due to human or Earth centric fauna and flora?

Further, let us couple the Drake Equation and an old movie favorite of mine, The Andromeda Strain, to over-reach and acknowledge the burden of knowing that “we are not alone”. Let us not accidentally become in contact with a life form, no matter how minor the xtra-terrestrial beasty might be – as it will have an impact on Earth’s ecology. At the least, it will muddle up the science of exobiology. However, with human beings and our agricultural vertebrates leaving only 5% to the remaining 5,000 vertebrate species on Earth, I fear for very little. If we pay lip service to Planetary Protection, truly Water Bears and the Class Insecta will become the dominant life form.

In 1967 an Outer Space Treaty (OST) was kindled by international and federal law. We have all been blessed, that for the last 50 years, that we have had something in common with the rest of our planet. Outer Space. Not to be outdone, we also have The Committee of Space Research, also known as COSPAR. Whose guidance, it tuns out, is not binding under the OST. Nutz!

I initially stumbled upon COSPAR when I was researching my ECHO I plates. By the by – I continue to be in a holding pattern for the archival process to be written and and accepted by the curator at the Smithsonian. Truly, this is nothing to be taken lightly – as acceptance of historical photographic plates of our first transnational satellite communication system takes lodes of time to digest and ponder. Come on, ‘M’ – I will make the trip to Washington myself!

Ok, let’s get back on track with the good stuff. Everyone is excited about visiting Europa and deep sea diving. And yet, to fast track any off world surf and turf would require stringent methodology to protect the waters of life, well…from life itself. Keeping with the times, we have known since the 1990’s that water wasn’t limited to the boundaries of Earth. Regardless if it is NASA or COSPAR, we Amateur Astronomers must stay abreast of nascent developments. It is incumbent upon us all, to weigh in on the politics of the day, and make sure that we do not stick our biological noses into thriving or developing exo-zoological systems.

Mars. So close this time of year, and yet my shrubs have grown so high that a vista to the South is blocked. Coupled with the many clouded days of yore, I wept silently into many a night. I turn my tears into powerful ascertainment that today is the day that I trim the verge. Where were we? Ah, yes. Mars. A visit to the below web page, hosted by NASA, and brought to our attention by page 32 of the National Academy of Sciences document (ibid) is a welcome sight! shows us the container used for the Viking Lander I. After sterilization, that is dry baking at over 111 degrees Celcius for 30 hours, the probes were sealed in a protective bioshell. The bioshell is a poster child for planetary protection policy. Due to budget limitations, and a broad spread of vendors that produce parts and crafts, what was orchestrated by NASA, in the day, is difficult for me to envision as being practical for today’s science exploration. Further reading into policy is not for the feint of heart. However, given the logistics of modern space exploration, new avenues of planetary protection are to be explored, and utilized. Cue the Amateur. Wink. Wink. Nod. Nod.

Let us touch upon orbital debris, for a moment. It wasn’t until the time of President Ronald Reagan, circa 1988, when policy was first mentioned to minimize the creation of space junk. We continue to design methods to define the environment, and limit the growth of nuts and bolts in space. There are international dialogues and inter-agency co-operations that help assess debris impact, before missions ever take flight. Discussion over the years, led to the creation of the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC) in 1993 (ibid p113). As an aside, high level cooperative discussions and decision making are sent to the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Use of Outer Space (COPUOS). From there, the UN General Assembly makes the guidelines. On December 22, 2007, the UN adopted mitigation guidelines under resolution 62/217. Here is the web link below,last accessed Saturday, September 29, 2018 at 9:35 AM EST:

And Then There Were None. Yes, I prefaced Elon Musks’ car launch of a Tesla into space with the title of Agatha Christie’s most difficult novel for her to write, ever. I feel her pain, as I finish laying my golden egg, and soon to bid you adieu.

Good job, Elon. Nice way to contaminate and avoid Planetary Protection policy and guidelines. Wait a minute? Did he actually violate any law or guideline? Turns out Mr. Musk and SpaceX are within perfect bounds. The Falcon Nine Heavy launch of February 6, 2018, according to the below weblink, referencing Appendix H of the National Academies Report on Planetary Protection, last accessed Thursday, October 4, 2018, 10:21 PM EST:

reads that “the payload and trajectory were only generally defined with no direct reference to a Mars-targeted orbit” back in August 2017, when NASA responded to the FAA’s launch license. NASA calculated limited trajectories for the Tesla Roadster, and “was not in a position to confirm the probability of an impact on Mars”, and it is given that Mr. Musk did not include plans for a fly-by, orbiter or lander for a target body. The FAA launch license was consistent with Mr. Musks’ Twitter feed. And, “a spacecraft not encountering another planetary body is not subject to NASA or COSPAR planetary protection policy”.

My gut instinct is to make a call for further planetary protection, however I do not care for intrusive policies that limit the imagination and outreach of scientists, both Amateur and Professional. Or, to turn a page to the home World of Superman. If Jor-El listened to his council, we would never have had six great full feature films to watch. May it be fortuitous that we have not less than five more launches for good measure! Please, though, remember to keep your seats and trays in the up-right position, at all times!!

This entry was posted in October 2018, Sidereal Times and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Planetary Protection

  1. Prior to publication of the essay, “Planetary Protection”, an inquiry was made by a fellow club member at UACNJ as to who is in charge of Planetary Protection at NASA. My essay, in its original content cited an individual that contributed to the Planetary Protection Policy document, and whose name appears in Appendix H, of that main supporting document for this essay. That being the only name associated with the Elon Musk Tesla Roadster launch, left me with an indelible impression. And it formed an incorrect one. Finding myself “name impaired”, at the moment, I was unable to recall even the name that I cited in the essay. Enter the internet search.

    I searched the name citation, and found that the individual was not in charge of Planetary Protection, and had some relevant data on the web, listing a history as being a deputy in the organization. This was not an oversight of the original appendix. It was, however, about to set me on the straight and narrow path.

    This further prompted research, easily enough, to determine who was in charge of Planetary Protection, at the time of the writing of this essay. An email was sent, as well as a follow-up to determine the authenticity of the person, cited in the Appendix.

    One of the two emails, that I sent as a query, were forwarded by the NASA department to NASA’s Public Affairs Officer, who was kind, and clear in their note. They conveyed that although the cited individual in question had worked on the report, that I should cite the snippets from the report, and not the person.

    I decided immediately to pull the essay, and revise the second and third, from the last paragraph. It is with great humility that I thank our Editor, for his time and attention, in making the revisions necessary to insure that our Sidereal Times, The Publication of the Amateur Astronomers Association of Princeton, continues to merit the attention of all Astronomers, both professional and Amateur.

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