Meeting Summary: Planetary Protection Advisory Committee 18-19 March 2002

Status Report From: NASA Advisory Council
Posted: Wednesday, May 1, 2002

May 1, 2002

Dr. Edward Weiler
Associate Administrator for Space Science
National Aeronautics and Space Administration
400 E Street SW
Washington, DC 20546

Dear Dr. Weiler:

The inaugural meeting of the Planetary Protection Advisory Committee was held on March 18 and 19 of this year. Because this was the initial meeting, much of the agenda was devoted to introductory briefings and reports. However, we did consider at some length the MUSES-C mission. We were briefed by Dr. Donald Yeomans and from Dr. Akira Fujiwara on the technical details of the mission. The Committee discussed a number of issues and devised the following recommendation:

"The Committee heard presentations on the MUSES-C mission, and on the nature of the MUSES-C target body, 1998 SF36. We have evaluated the mission for the purpose of assessing planetary protection requirements. Based on the framework presented in Evaluating the Biological Potential in Returned Samples from Planetary Satellites and Small Solar System Bodies: Framework for Decision Making (National Research Council, 1998), the Committee affirms that the target body belongs to class Ib. After discussion of this mission and the target body, the Committee recommends that no special containment for samples returned from 1998 SF36 is required for the purposes of planetary protection, provided that subsequent information obtained prior to sample return remains consistent with the classification of that body as an undifferentiated metamorphosed asteroid. As such, we recommend that for NASA purposes, the mission be designated Planetary Protection Category V, "unrestricted Earth return."

Should new information be obtained prior to sample return that would call into question this classification, the Committee would reconsider the matter at that time.

With regard to Mars, the Committee heard from Mr. Orlando Figueroa, Director for Mars Exploration on plans for Mars missions and Dr. John Rummel, NASA PPO, on the development of a protocol for Mars sample handling. The Committee will consider this Protocol in more detail at our next meeting.

The current membership of the Committee represents a good "mix" of backgrounds and expertise - however, there is still a need for expertise in risk analysis and in science/risk communication. I am gratified that current members have already provided suggestions for candidates in these areas.   I am especially pleased that most of the representatives from other Federal agencies have been appointed. Those that joined us at this first meeting provided useful information and thoughtful insights. I am also very pleased that we had excellent participation from the international representatives. The continued participation of the other agencies and our international partners will be critical for the future effectiveness of the Committee’s deliberations. In addition, we are anxious for the Space Science Advisory Committee to name its liaison to the Committee so that we may carefully coordinate science objectives with planetary protection requirements as was envisioned when the PPAC was established.

Much work lies ahead for our Committee. As NASA develops its roadmap and detailed plans for Mars exploration and for missions to other Solar System bodies, both forward and back contamination issues will loom large. To date, the scientific community has focused on the science objectives and design of a Mars sample return mission. Preparation for such a mission must also address planetary protection issues such as the need for a sample receiving/handling facility here on Earth, a "long-lead" item that will require extensive planning. The requirements for such a facility must be integrated with the science objectives before the detailed mission design has been finalized (and cost estimates developed).  This has not been done to date and will, undoubtedly, be complicated by the relatively inefficient funding patterns inherent in the U.S. budget.   Nevertheless, it seems prudent for the mission science definition team and NASA’s Mars program managers to attend to this issue as soon as practicable - even in the face of significant uncertainty about the timing of a sample return mission.

The Committee heard from Dr. Colleen Hartman of the Solar System Exploration Division. Her presentation was a good reminder that while Mars represents the current focus of much of the planetary protection effort, future missions to other solar system bodies (e.g., Europa, small bodies) will likely raise planetary protection concerns for scientists, the public, and this Committee. The Committee looks forward to providing advice on a systematic and strategic approach to planetary protection issues across the entire gamut of Solar System Exploration activities. Such an approach might be especially helpful as both nearer- and farther-term missions are considered and take more definite shape.

On behalf of the entire Committee, I thank you for meeting with us. We appreciated your time and your perspectives both on science and on education and outreach activities. We also would like to thank all of our presenters. I offer a special thanks to Dr. Rummel, the Committee's Executive Secretary, and Ms. Marian Norris for their help in establishing this Committee and facilitating this meeting. Paula Frankel did her usual superb job as meeting rapporteur.

I know the Committee joins me in looking forward to working with you on the important planetary protection issues that will merit our attention as NASA pursues its Solar System exploration program.


Norine E. Noonan, Ph.D.

Members of the Planetary Protection Advisory Committee
Dr. John Rummel, PPAC Executive Secretary and NASA PPO
Dr. Charles Kennel, Chairman, NASA Advisory Council  
Dr. Sylvia Kraemer
Dr. Joseph Alexander, Director, Space Studies Board, National Research Council

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