According to the findings of a study, future Mars lander operations could adopt less strict planetary protection standards by landing in areas of the planet improbable to enable any terrestrial contamination to spread. According to a study released October 7 by the National Academies committee, missions that don’t plan to go deeper than a meter into the surface might land across such a wide range of the lower latitudes of the planet that are unlikely to have significant quantities of water ice might land across a broad range of the lower latitudes of the planet.

“By relaxing planetary security requirements while remaining cautious about access to prospective habitable zones, the committee’s findings can result to creating sections of Mars more available to commercial and government endeavors,” Amanda Hendrix, who serves as the senior scientist at Planetary Science Institute as well as a co-chair of the committee, stated during a press conference at the Div.

In response to a suggestion made by an impartial review board in a 2019 report, NASA commissioned National Academies to conduct the study. According to the report, NASA should consider reclassifying portions of Mars and the moon to minimize mission needs while still restricting contamination to elements that may provide signs of past or present life. “To safeguard future life detection investigations on Mars, we want to avoid hazardous contamination,” Hendrix added.

The group looked into the aspects that influence the survival and transportation of any terrestrial life which makes it to Mars. The surface is unfriendly because of the cold and dry temperatures, as well as the ultraviolet (UV) as well as galactic cosmic radiation bombarding it. “The surface environment is particularly biocidal, primarily owing to UV,” she stated in a National Academies webinar on October 7.

The risk is that any terrestrial contamination may be transported below the surface, where it would have been insulated from radiation and have access to subsurface water, possibly in a linked network allowing life to spreading. The committee found that this risk is reduced if spacecraft function in the top meter of surface in areas with patchy or no water ice deposits. The one-meter limit is based on limited data charting subsurface water ice, she explained in the webinar.

This would allow missions to land in most of, but not all, of the 30 – 40 degrees latitude of the equator if they followed reduced planetary protection measures. Closer to poles, as well as some locations near the equator, ice densities are higher. Missions that do not intend to penetrate below the surface could land anywhere on the planet with less stringent regulations.

The research made no recommendations as to what those additional planetary protection criteria should be. The entire planet is presently designated as Category 4, NASA’s second-highest degree of planetary protection, which includes strict sanitation and “bioburden reduction” criteria.

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