NASA wants to protect Moon and Mars from human contamination

It has updated its policies to make sure humans don't contaminate the new worlds we're exploring.

Jared Lyons/NASA

NASA wants to make sure we don’t unknowingly take organisms or other contaminants from Earth to other worlds (and vice-versa) when humans start exploring space beyond Low Earth Orbit. In a tweet, NASA Administrator Jim Brindestine has announced that the agency has updated its policies to reflect that commitment ahead of the upcoming Artemis missions. “We will protect scientific discoveries and the Earth’s environment, while enabling dynamic human exploration and commercial innovation on the Moon and Mars,” he wrote.

While the space agency has been sending rovers and other unmanned spacecraft to the Moon and Mars, it’s concerned about the biological contaminants associated with human presence. If we unknowingly take contaminants to other worlds when we start human exploration, we risk compromising the search for extraterrestrial life. At the same time, NASA wants to ensure its crewed missions don’t cause adverse changes to Earth’s environment with the introduction of contaminants from outer space.

The agency has issued two Interim Directives to update its policies, with the first one focusing on robotic and crewed missions traveling to and from the Earth’s Moon. NASA Science Mission Directorate Thomas Zurbuchen explained: "We are enabling our important goal of sustainable exploration of the Moon while simultaneously safeguarding future science in the permanently shadowed regions. These sites have immense scientific value in shaping our understanding of the history of our planet, the Moon and the solar system."

Meanwhile, the second directive focuses on biological contamination for Earth-Moon to Mars missions. The agency says it will use data and experience gained via ground-based tests to conjure guidelines and develop capabilities to monitor biological processes associated with human presence in space exploration. It also aims to develop technologies to mitigate contamination, such as more effective waste disposal tools and techniques. In addition, the agency wants to have a better understanding of Martian environmental processes in order to figure how to properly sterilize terrestrial organisms released by human activity.

NASA is hoping to send the next man and the first woman to the Moon by 2024 and to establish a sustainable human presence there.