Private Space Missions Increase The Risk Of Biological Pollution

2021-02-03   |   by CusiGO

Rats, quails, freshwater fish, cockroaches, moths and flies. This is NASA’s choice of animals in 1969, moon rocks smashed, rats injected intravenously, the rest of the food. Apollo 11 returned to earth with a sample of our satellite. Their three astronauts were quarantined for three weeks, and their precious cargo was tested for several months. Why? To ensure that the first extraterrestrial materials collected by humans do not pollute the earth.

Planetary protection. This is the technical name of the agreement on the prevention of biological pollution in the solar system. We can cause human pollution on other celestial bodies, and we can bring it to earth on the return mission. In 1958, one year after the Soviet Union’s first satellite was launched, with the establishment of COSPAR, the space exploration Committee under the International Council of Sciences, the level of planetary protection was established. CSIC is the Spanish representative of COSPAR.

The national space Commission (NSC), a white house agency, published a document last December, laying the foundation for substantial change in planetary protection: this responsibility is no longer NASA’s responsibility, but the government’s responsibility, and “the Department of health plays a key [coordinating] role.”. The National Science Council warned that since the Apollo mission more than 50 years ago, the procedures to avoid harming the earth and other planets have hardly changed. “Given the rapid growth in capabilities and private sector activity, U.S. companies are likely to be key players in [extraterrestrial] life search,” NSC said. “However, the approval and monitoring procedures for private missions are not clear in terms of global protection.”

In October last year, the Institute for Defense Analysis (IDA), a research center affiliated to the US government, published a report warning of the vulnerability caused by the private sector, taking the Israeli beresheet mission of millionaire Nova Spivak as an example, According to the experiments, it crashed on the moon in 2019, carrying thousands of tardiggers, a microscope animal, and one of the most resistant creatures known on earth and in space.

Elon Musk’s space company space X is a major private player in the space race. In addition to its successful reusable launch and navigation device, space X has developed a new spacecraft that can reach Mars and return to earth, with the goal of making its first flight in 2024. Virgin Galactic has also expressed interest in developing projects on the red planet. Currently, there are six human units on Mars, including a probe orbiting the earth, a lander (descent and analysis camera module) and a curiosity robot on the surface. It is estimated that in February this year, they will complete three new Mars missions: China astronomy 1, Saudi hope probe and NASA’s new “perseverance” carrier rocket. At present, the most ambitious Mars project is led by the European Space Agency (ESA): in cooperation with the Russian space agency Roscosmos, it plans to launch the first mission to extract samples from earth and return to earth in 2022.

Both the European Commission and ESA declined to assess for the country whether Europe’s global protection authority should continue to be the responsibility of the agency, or whether the European Commission should act on it. COSPAR planetary protection expert group explained to this newspaper that their agreement is an international standard but not legally binding. COSPAR noted that the operational responsibilities of private space companies were governed by Article VI of the United Nations outer space treaty. The document, which was adopted in 1967 and signed by 110 countries, stipulates that “non-governmental entities” must abide by the treaty and that its implementation should be managed by the government of the country in which it operates. Article 9 stipulates that “the exploration of the moon and other celestial bodies by all countries shall not cause harmful pollution or adverse changes to the earth’s environment due to the introduction of extraterrestrial materials.”.

COSPAR noted that the major space agencies – NASA, ESA, German and French agencies, Roscosmos, China’s national space agency and Japan’s aerospace research and Development Agency – comply with the “comprehensive cleaning and disinfection” protocol. The first and second categories have the lowest requirements, focusing on tasks that exclude the threat of serious pollution. The third and fourth categories are applicable to spacecraft orbiting or approaching objects considered to have or had life: This requires studying the possibility of collision with the surface, Potential biological contamination of the place for testing, assembly and testing of components in the health laboratory and disinfection equipment in contact with the ground. The fifth category is the highest, for the mission of returning to earth, extracting materials from celestial bodies that may find organic elements. At this level, there is an obligation to isolate alien samples, to process the components of those samples, and to make sure that the spacecraft does not crash when it enters the earth’s atmosphere. In addition, all unsterilized materials must undergo a rigorous isolation analysis process.

What is the danger of interstellar pollution? Victor Parro, a researcher at the CSIC astrobiology center, pointed out that if life is found on Mars, “it is most likely that they are underground organisms, bacteria that can reproduce without oxygen and little water, and use salt and iron as energy.” According to Paro, the risk of these bacteria creating a Hector on earth is a science fiction assumption: potential Martian bacteria will adapt to the extreme environment of your planet, and introduction to earth will definitely destroy them, Although it admits that there are some areas of our planet with extreme conditions similar to Mars.

Paro also pointed out that cross contamination could have occurred between 4 and 1.6 billion years ago, when both planets received a large number of asteroids from each other. The CSIC scientist added that measures to isolate material from Mars may be enough to eliminate potential threats.

According to COSPAR and space agencies, the risk of taking samples from the moon or asteroids with “no signs of chemical and / or life evolution” is negligible, such as the samples from the Japanese falcon-2 spacecraft that arrived on earth from the Ryukyu asteroid in December last year. But NASA, through an independent advisory committee in 2019, acknowledged that category five missions from Mars could not be completely safe. Paro confirms this, and warns that if planetary conservation becomes an obsession, absurd mission costs can be achieved. “Since the Viking Mars mission [1975], procedures to remove microorganisms by placing materials in a hot oven for a few days have been in progress. You get a lot. Just like you pasteurize yogurt, you don’t get rid of all the microbes, but you get enough. ”

Some studies have shown that life forms such as spores, seeds, larvae and eggs can survive on Mars. Andrea butturini, Professor of biogeochemistry at the University of Barcelona, explained: “microbiologists are very clear that no one will limit the adaptability of prokaryotes (single celled organisms such as bacteria and archaea). Some of these organisms can tolerate extreme pH, temperature, heat, vacuum, dehydration, lack of nutrition and extremely high doses of ionizing radiation Butturini stressed that these extremophiles have adapted to extreme environments, but under certain conditions, if they change dramatically, they may die. “Maybe they’re more suitable for ordinary and ubiquitous microbes that are remarkably tolerant,” bartrini said. “It can’t be ruled out that the structure of these spacecraft allows some corners to be protected from these cruel and constantly changing environmental oscillations.”

The main concern is that human pollution will change the results of experiments on Mars aimed at clarifying whether there is life on the red planet. But even so, Palo added, DNA analysis of the samples collected can determine whether the organic material obtained came from land. Paro warned that the enthusiasm to protect Mars was too high: “once we set foot on Mars, it’s meaningless. From now to 100 or 200 years, when humans visit the earth with a certain degree of fluency, this mixing will be inevitable. In fact, that’s how life is, mixing. ”

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