Planetary protection: changes coming – but for better or for worse?



Yesterday I tuned in online to a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council in Washington, D.C.* I was interested in hearing the NAC’s discussion of a report from the chair of a new NAC committee on regulatory and policy matters. I blogged about that committee’s first meeting on November 20.

After that meeting, the committee forwarded a set of findings and recommendations to the NAC, including the following:

“While taking appropriate efforts to prevent harmful contamination of the Earth or other celestial bodies, NASA should not adopt policies that would place unduly onerous and/or unreasonable restrictions and obligations on public or private sector space missions.”

“NASA should establish a multi-disciplinary team of experts from industry, the scientific community, and relevant government agencies, to develop U.S. policies that properly balance the legitimate need to protect against the harmful contamination of the Earth or other celestial bodies with the scientific, social, and economic benefits of public and private space missions.”

“The term ‘Planetary Protection’ should not be used by NASA to describe the need to prevent the contamination of the Earth or other celestial bodies through human or robotic exploration. Instead, NASA should more properly refer to conducting space exploration so as to avoid ‘harmful contamination’ of celestial bodies and ‘adverse changes in the environment of the Earth’ when referencing concerns regarding contamination through human or robotic exploration, and the recommended multi-disciplinary team should be tasked with producing a detailed guide for the Administration, the science and research community, and private sector with best practices to protect against harmful contamination.”

The chair of the NAC committee on regulatory and policy matters is private-sector attorney Mike Gold, currently Vice President, Washington, DC Operations for Space System Loral (SSL). SSL is a Maxar Technologies company (formerly MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd., or MDA). For its fiscal year 2017, Maxar reported $1.6 billion in revenues and net earnings of $100.4 million.

Gold has long been a vocal advocate for minimal regulation of the aerospace industry.

As I noted in my November 20 blog post, private-sector and some public-sector players in the space exploration community began lobbying in earnest for an easing of planetary protection requirements during the Obama administration. The lobbying forces for minimal regulation have ramped up their campaign in the current administration.

The committee’s planetary-protection recommendations generated an interesting discussion among NAC members.

One member of the NAC warned Gold to be careful of language. The use of the word “onerous” is problematic, he said. Referring to the need to revise a currently “onerous” policy could convey to the rest of the world that the United States wants to ease the way for commercial development of space.

“My problem with [the term planetary protection],” Gold said, “is the breadth of the term.”

(To my mind, that’s the point – as astrobiologists have come to realize, life is a planetary phenomenon.  If we’re looking for life in other planetary environments, we need to ensure that those environments remain pristine.)

NAC ex-officio member Fiona Harrison – chair of the National Academies’ Space Studies Board – and Meenakshi Wadwha, chair of the NAC’s science committee – both defended the use of the term, citing its long history and the need for further consideration of whether it should be retired or not.

“We will look at utilization of the term,” Gold said.

Gold told the NAC that, regarding planetary protection, “There isn’t a dispute between the human space flight industry and science.” The more missions we have, the more science can be done, he said.

(I disagree. There is a conflict between the goals of human space flight advocates who argue that current planetary protection policy is unduly restrictive and planetary scientists who are interested in exploring potentially habitable environments for signs of extant life. If an extraterrestrial environment is contaminated by terrestrial biology, it is no longer useful as a place to search for evidence of indigenous life.)

NASA associate administrator for space science Thomas Zurbuchen told the NAC, “Clearly times have changed…. The way we think about life today is very different than it was” when planetary protection policy was first established. “Progress in science must come in…. We want to change this policy regimen…. We have to strike a balance” between protecting future science and enabling exploration, he said.

(I do not know whether Zurbuchen favors relaxing planetary protection requirements or whether he favors bring planetary protection requirements into alignment with current science, as recommended by the National Academies’ Space Studies Board in its 2018 review of planetary protection policy development processes. If the latter, then, from where I stand, planetary protection requirements will change, but not relax.)

Zurbuchen told the NAC he will assemble a multidisciplinary team of experts to review planetary protection policy, as the committee recommended. (Let’s hope the membership of this team is well balanced – not tilted in favor of industry, as the NAC committee on regulatory and policy matters is.)

Stay tuned.

* Marcia Smith of Space Policy Online has posted a good report on on this week’s NAC meeting, here:


Planetary protection: don’t mess with it



The estimable space policy analyst Marcia Smith, who’s founder and editor of, has informed me that, at its first meeting last week, a new NASA Advisory Council (NAC) advisory committee on regulatory and policy matters issued recommendations to change how NASA handles planetary protection.

For seven years or so, I was a consultant to NASA’s planetary protection officer (ca. 2001-2009). I’ve been following the public discourse about planetary protection since then. I observed that private-sector and some public-sector players in the space exploration community began lobbying in earnest for an easing of planetary protection requirements during the Obama administration, which – disturbingly – embraced the neoliberal ideology of space exploration: free rein to the private sector, minimal government oversight and regulation, etc.

The lobbying forces for minimal regulation have ramped up their campaign in the current administration. Not surprisingly.

According to Smith, who observed the NAC committee meeting, “The gist of the conversation was that COSPAR’s guidelines, and NASA’s adherence to them, are too rigorous and not necessary to meet the legally binding provision in the OST.”

I disagree.

COSPAR is the international Committee on Space Research. The OST is the 1967 United Nations Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (a.k.a. the Outer Space Treaty, OST).

COSPAR’s panel on planetary protection and NASA’s planetary protection experts have been coordinating efforts for decades to ensure that COSPAR guidelines – compliance with which is voluntary since COSPAR has no enforcement authority – and NASA policy – compliance with which is mandatory – are in sync.

The NAC committee’s finding that “policies and guidelines produced by [COSPAR’s] Planetary Protection Panel are not legally binding” is not news, nor has it been a secret. I should note that, as far as I’m aware, the COSPAR “honor system” of voluntary compliance has worked well thus far.

Here’s the rest of the NAC committee’s report to the NAC (whose next meeting apparently is not yet scheduled):

“Finding: It is in NASA’s, the nation’s, and the world’s interest for NASA and non-government entities to contribute to the advancement of science and space exploration by executing missions to celestial bodies, with appropriate oversight and supervision by American authorities.

Recommendation: While taking appropriate efforts to prevent harmful contamination of the Earth or other celestial bodies, NASA should not adopt policies that would place unduly onerous and/or unreasonable restrictions and obligations on public or private sector space missions.

Recommendation: NASA should establish a multi-disciplinary team of experts from industry, the scientific community, and relevant government agencies, to develop U.S. policies that properly balance the legitimate need to protect against the harmful contamination of the Earth or other celestial bodies with the scientific, social, and economic benefits of public and private space missions.

Recommendation: The term ‘Planetary Protection’ should not be used by NASA to describe the need to prevent the contamination of the Earth or other celestial bodies through human or robotic exploration. Instead, NASA should more properly refer to conducting space exploration so as to avoid ‘harmful contamination’ of celestial bodies and ‘adverse changes in the environment of the Earth’ when referencing concerns regarding contamination through human or robotic exploration, and the recommended multi-disciplinary team should be tasked with producing a detailed guide for the Administration, the science and research community, and private sector with best practices to protect against harmful contamination.”

First, reference to “unduly onerous and/or unreasonable restrictions and obligations” is legalese. In plain English, definitions of “unduly onerous” and “unreasonable” are highly subjective.

Next, yes, the Outer Space Treaty does not use the term “planetary protection.” Yes, it refers to the need to avoid “harmful contamination” – of extraterrestrial environments by terrestrial biology and of the terrestrial environment from possible extraterrestrial biology. No, I don’t think NASA needs to change the way it approaches planetary protection.

Regarding the NAC committee’s recommendation that NASA should not use the term “planetary protection” but instead use terms used in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, “harmful contamination” and “adverse changes in the environment of the Earth” when addressing possible contamination through human or robotic exploration – this is plain old sophistry – a kind of word play, “a subtle, tricky, superficially plausible, but generally fallacious method of reasoning; a false argument,” according to the dictionary.

The idea of planetary protection – protecting extraterrestrial environments from terrestrial biological contamination and protecting terrestrial environments from possible extraterrestrial biological contamination – predates the creation of NASA.

You can read all about it in Michael Meltzer’s book, When Biospheres Collide: A History of NASA’s Planetary Protection Programs. The history of planetary protection began with discussions in the international science community around 1956, leading to NASA policies requiring sterilization of planetary spacecraft and a planetary quarantine program for human missions to the Moon and eventually to establishment of NASA’s planetary protection policy and procedures in the 1980s, which are routinely updated to reflect current developments in scientific research and technology development.

Smith tells me that the NAC committee heard a presentation from Gabriel Swiney, the State Department legal officer in charge of space matters, in which Swiney said that while he has been using the terms “planetary protection” and ‘harmful contamination” interchangeably, he has recently become convinced – by whom, I wonder? – that they are not synonymous.

The NAC committee consists of 11 aerospace industry representatives, including its chair, Mike Gold, who is a corporate attorney, one space policy expert – John Logsdon, who is knowledgeable but old-school and a space-exploration booster; one law professor; and one scientist (who works for the Aerospace Corporation – so a corporate scientist). This is a pretty lopsided line-up, IMHO.

The NAC committee’s findings overall appear to be at odds with the findings of an ad hoc committee of the National Academies’ Space Studies Board, commissioned by NASA’s Science Mission Directorate toreview planetary protection policy development processes. (I was interviewed by staff of this ad hoc committee as it was conducting its review – see p. x of the report.) This committee issued its report earlier this year. One of the committee’s recommendations was that “the Department of State, informed by consultations with the appropriate experts and stakeholders, should embark on active international diplomacy to forge consensus on appropriate policies for planetary protection for a broad range of future missions to Mars. The goal should be to maintain and develop international consensus on how best to mutually and cooperatively meet all signatories’ obligations under Articles IX and VI of the Outer Space Treaty. Such diplomacy should take into consideration, to the extent possible, the best available science as well as anticipate new missions in space.” The NAC committee’s recommendations appear to reflect the current administration’s lack of interest in using diplomacy to resolve potential disagreements. (Again, my five cents worth, which is worth just as much as anybody else’s five cents worth.)

COSPAR’s panel on planetary protection and NASA’s planetary protection experts have been coordinating efforts for decades to ensure that COSPAR guidelines and NASA policy – compliance with which is mandatory – are in sync.

One of the NAC committee’s recommendations refers to “unduly onerous and/or unreasonable restrictions and obligations.” Such terminology is highly subjective. Scientists interested in searching for evidence of past or present life on planetary bodies in the solar system – not all of whom are opposed to human exploration or colonization of planetary bodies – do not consider the cost of compliance with planetary protection policy or guidelines onerous or unreasonable. They consider it necessary. Individuals and groups who have been advocating easement are not concerned with preserving pristine environments for scientific exploration.

The SSB’s planetary protection review committee addressed, among others, the following questions:

“What worthwhile lessons can policymakers take from the history of planetary protection policy development in looking toward future exploration and sample return missions?

What are the respective roles and responsibilities of international organizations, national organizations and national space agencies (including agencies’ planetary protection officers), advisory committees, and others in the process?

What scientific, technical, philosophical, and/or ethical assumptions and values about the importance of avoiding forward contamination of extraterrestrial planetary environments are prioritized in the current planetary protection policy development process?

What scientific, technical, philosophical, and ethical assumptions and values about the importance of protecting Earth and its environment (“backward contamination”) are prioritized in the current planetary protection policy development process?

How does the current process take into account new scientific and technical knowledge?

How does the state of scientific understanding of planetary environments and their ability to harbor life inform the current planetary protection policy development process? What scientific knowledge or exploration interests are not taken into account?

How does the current planetary protection policy development process balance interest in acquiring scientific knowledge of planetary environments to inform future scientific studies, exploration, and planetary protection policy choices with the interest in protecting those environments in the here-and-now?

Here are some of the recommendations of the SSB committee (a much more balanced and qualified group of experts than the NAC committee under consideration here, IMHO):

  • NASA’s process for developing a human Mars exploration policy should include examination of alternative planetary protection scenarios and should have access to the necessary research that informs these It should also include plans to engage with other nations on the policy and legal implications of missions to Mars.
  • The Department of State, informed by consultations with the appropriate experts and stakeholders, should embark on active international diplomacy to forge consensus on appropriate policies for planetary protection for a broad range of future missions to Mars. The goal should be to maintain and develop international consensus on how best to mutually and cooperatively meet all signatories’ obligations under Articles IX and VI of the Outer Space Treaty.
  • One set of regulations for private-sector activities and another for those undertaken by governmental entities is likely cumbersome, open to ambiguity and abuse, and probably unworkable. Therefore, the committee recommends that planetary protection policies and requirements for forward and back contamination should apply equally to both government-sponsored and private-sector missions to Mars.
  • If planetary protection policies operate in an even-handed manner, then the private sector needs an entrée to the policy-setting process. Therefore, the committee recommends that NASA ensure that its policy-development processes, including new mechanisms (e.g., a revitalized external advisory committee focused on planetary protection) make appropriate efforts to take into account the views of the private sector in the development of planetary protection policy. NASA should support the efforts of COSPAR officials to increase private-sector participation in the COSPAR process on planetary protection.

In a blog post of October 17, I reported on a commentary by space policy analyst Joan Johnson-Freese, one of the most astute, well-informed, and nonpartisan space policy analysts around today. She recommends building on, not undermining, provisions of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. With space libertarians crawling out of the woodwork to tout their agenda of “less regulation,” “streamlined regulation,” “minimal regulation,” “permissionless innovation,” and so on, it’s refreshing to hear from a rational actor, with no financial interest in the advancement of the libertarian agenda of space colonization and exploitation. Johnson-Freese noted in her commentary, “Fifty years on, the Outer Space Treaty [is] still appropriate. But interpretations of its provisions are, more than ever, being influenced by commercial interests and politics. Supplementary rules and norms are needed.”

Right on.

As I noted in my October post, at a hearing focused on “how the Outer Space Treaty will impact American commerce and settlement in space” (May 23), University of Nebraska law professor Matt Schaefer and Laura Montgomery, former counsel to the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, both testified that Article IX of the treaty – which directs signatories (including the U.S.) to “conduct exploration [of celestial bodies] so as to avoid their harmful contamination and also adverse changes in the environment of the Earth resulting from the introduction of extraterrestrial matter and, where necessary…adopt appropriate measures for this purpose” – requires only consultation, not regulation.

Planetary protection experts disagree. For NASA-funded missions and experiments, compliance with the agency’s planetary protection policy is mandatory. So-called “commercial space” companies have been arguing that they should not be required to comply with any sort of planetary protection policy, and, so far, the FAA commercial space office has appeared inclined to agree.

If, and when, private-sector actors actually carry through with their claims of sending their own missions – robotic and human – to other planetary bodies, they need to comply with internationally agreed-upon, science-based policies, rules, regulations, and policies – not weakened policies, rules, regulations that are aimed at riskily speeding the pace of exploration and maximizing profits.

Wacky speculations about alien intelligence: ‘Oumuamua


Credit: shutter

I’ve been wondering over the past couple of days whether it would be worth my time to blog about the latest flurry of “alien spacecraft” stories, prompted by speculation in an astrophysics preprint posted on I’ve decided it’s worthwhile to provide some further perspective on the claim that the interstellar object known as ‘Oumuamua might be an alien spacecraft.

(The consensus among space scientists seems to be “no,” by the way.)

On November 6, Harvard University astronomy postdoctoral student Shmuel Bialy and Harvard astronomy department chairman Abraham (Avi) Loeb posted a preprint they authored on, “Could solar radiation pressure explain ‘Oumuamua’s peculiar acceleration?” The paper has been accepted for publication in Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Keep in mind that ‘Oumuamua is the first and only interstellar object observed in our solar system. There is no basis for comparison between it and anything else.

In this paper the authors speculate that “if [solar] radiation pressure is the accelerating force, then ‘Oumuamua represents a new class of thin interstellar material, either produced naturally, through a yet unknown process in the ISM [interstellar medium] or in protoplanetary disks, or of an artificial origin. Considering an artificial origin, one possibility is that ‘Oumuamua is a lightsail, floating in interstellar space as a debris from an advanced technological equipment.” Here Loeb cites his own writing, published in Scientific American and elsewhere, as the source of this speculation. “The lightsail technology might be abundantly used for transportation of cargo between planets (Guillochon & Loeb 2015) or between stars (Lingam & Loeb 2017)…dynamical ejection from a planetary System could result in space debris of equipment that is not operational any more(Loeb 2018).” (You can see that Loeb has been working on this fringe-y idea for a while.) “A more exotic scenario is that ‘Oumuamua may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization.”

Bialy and Loeb conclude: “A survey for lightsails as technosignatures in the Solar System is warranted, irrespective of whether ‘Oumuamua is one of them.” I’d say we need to leave it up to billionaire SETI enthusiasts, like Milner, to take up this challenge.

As soon as the preprint was posted, headlines followed – for example, “Cigar-shaped interstellar object may have been an alien probe, Harvard paper claims.”

By November 7, journalists were reporting that other scientists were dismissing the Bialy-Loeb claim – for example, “Sorry, this strange space rock was not sent by aliens to save us” (Washington Post); “Predictably, online media go nuts over ‘Oumuamua and Harvard scientists” (Ars Technica); “‘Oumuamua, oh my! Was interstellar object actually an alien solar sail? Not so fast” (GeekWire). Yet today, November 8, I’m still seeing new stories popping up online, propagating the ‘Oumuamua “alien spacecraft” claim.

Avi Loeb is chairman of Harvard University’s astronomy department. Such a position gives him instant authority. (My dissertation was a study of the role that journalists play in the social construction of scientific authority. You can read an introduction to the subject here.) Most of the stories I’ve read about this preprint don’t mention Loeb’s interest in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI).

According to his web site, Loeb chairs an advisory committee for the Breakthrough Starshot Initiative, serves as “science theory director” (whatever that means) for all Initiatives of the Breakthrough Prize Foundation. He also chairs the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies (more authority).

The Breakthrough Initiatives, funded by billionaire Yuri Milner, are “are a program of scientific and technological exploration, probing the big questions of life in the Universe: Are we alone? Are there habitable worlds in our galactic neighborhood? Can we make the great leap to the stars? And can we think and act together – as one world in the cosmos?”

Breakthrough Starshot “is a $100 million research and engineering program aiming to demonstrate proof of concept for a new technology, enabling ultra-light unmanned space flight at 20% of the speed of light; and to lay the foundations for a flyby mission to Alpha Centauri within a generation.” Another Breakthrough initiative is Breakthrough Listen, allegedly “the largest ever scientific research program aimed at finding evidence of civilizations beyond Earth.”

Loeb wrote a blog post for Scientific American, published (coincidentally?) September 27, on the subject of “how to search for dead cosmic civilizations.” With Harvard professor Manasvi Lingam, Loeb coauthored a paper posted on September 24, “Dependence of biological activity on the surface water fraction of planets,” which addresses “implications for the prevalence of microbial and technological species in the Universe.”

You may recall that upon ‘Oumuamua’s discovery in October 2017 – the first interstellar object detected in our solar system – there was some speculation that it could be an object constructed by extraterrestrial intelligent beings. Responding to speculation that if the object was, indeed, an alien craft, it could be leaking radio signals, the Breakthrough Listen project made an attempt to detect signals from the object. The results? Nothing.

Scientific American reported on December 11, 2017, that Loeb “helped persuade [Breakthrough’s] Milner to pursue the observations. This article noted that Loeb is “pessimistic about prospects for uncovering aliens…. Then again, Loeb [said], ‘perhaps the aliens have a mothership that travels fast and releases baby spacecraft that freely fall into planetary system on a reconnaissance mission. In such a case, we might be able to intercept a communication signal between the different spacecraft’.”

(Can you hear me slapping myself upside the head?)

In April, astrobiologist and SETI enthusiast Adam Frank wrote for about a conversation he had with Loeb “about what we should be thinking about when we consider exo-civilizations.” Frank concluded that “Loeb is essentially optimistic about the search” for so-called technosignatures – signs of technology produced by extraterrestrial intelligent life. That is, SETI. See my recent blog post about a recent workshop on technosignatures sponsored by NASA at the direction of Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), outgoing chairman of the House Science, Technology, and Space Committee, with authorizing jurisdiction over NASA. Rep. Smith is a fan of SETI and held several SETI “love-fest” hearings” in recent years. I expect that incoming Democratic chair Rep. Eddie Bernice Smith (D-TX) will take a more balanced approach to assessing NASA’s space science priorities.

As “news” fodder, SETI is easy material. It’s all speculation, and scientists and the reporters who write about claims such as Loeb’s can’t be wrong. I’m not at all sure whether this sort of speculation helps non-experts understand the scientific search for evidence of extraterrestrial life. There’s so much interesting, and scientifically grounded, research going on in the field of astrobiology. I wish it drew more attention. (Full disclosure: I am a part-time consultant to NASA’s astrobiology program. No one asked me to write this post.)

Who’s doing what in planetary defense: further clarification


Credit: chemistry

The B612 Foundation has just issued its 2018 annual report, and, as usual, it appears to attempt to take credit for the work of others and mislead readers about who’s doing what in planetary defense. (See my previous blog posts of May 7 and May 8 on this subject. And for the purposes of disclosure, I am a part-time consultant to NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office. No one asked me to write this post.)

In a letter announcing the publication of the report, B612 President Danica Remy says, “It is time for space agencies, private corporations, academics, and nonprofits to work together with the goal of filling in the details on the millions of asteroids in our inner solar system.”

The institutions and individuals in all of these sectors that are capable of doing the work are already working together, and they have been working together for some time. Due to global efforts to find, track, and characterize NEOs and predict close approaches (within five million miles of Earth’s orbit) and possible future impacts with Earth, a worldwide network of organizations and individuals interested in planning for planetary defense against future asteroid impacts is in place, and growing in numbers and scope.

NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office and the NEO Segment of the European Space Agency’s Space Situational Awareness Program are members of the International Asteroid Warning Network (IAWN) and the Space Missions Planning Advisory Group (SMPAG), multinational endeavors recommended by the United Nations for an international response to the NEO impact hazard and established and operated by space-capable nations. Other members of IAWN and SMPAG include research institutions and observatories in Eastern and Western Europe, Asia, and South and North America. The IAWN steering committee held its first meeting in January 2014, which I participated in, and SMPAG held its first meeting in February 2014. Both groups have been meeting about twice a year since then, adding new members, and, from my perspective, they are making good progress. The IAWN now has 15 members, the most recent to join being an observatory in Croatia. B612 is not a member of either group.

On October 18 and 19, I attended (virtually, via livestream) meetings of the International Asteroid Warning Network (IAWN) and the Space Missions Planning Advisory Group (SMPAG).  A summary of the SMPAG meeting is already posted online. A summary of the IAWN meeting will be posted online soon.

The Minor Planet Center (MPC), sanctioned by the International Astronomical Union, is the global repository for positional measurements of asteroids and comets. It has been in operation since 1947. For the past decade, the MPC has been fully funded by NASA. The MPC is responsible for identification, designation and orbit computation for these “minor planets.”

Worldwide, space agencies are working with disaster-planning and emergency-response organizations to prepare for planetary defense.

B612 President Danica Remy writes in the 2018 report, “With asteroid 2018 LA, we saw the planet’s Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System (ATLAS) and the community work together and were thus able to detect this asteroid and determine it was on a course to impact Earth. Because of the systems in place, astronomers were able to assess this object shortly after discovery and determine its Earth-impacting trajectory. The good news is that NASA has announced it is funding two additional ATLAS telescopes in the southern hemisphere.” To my eyes, this is a bit misleading. The ATLAS project is fully funded by NASA’s Near Earth Object (NEO) Observations Program – so NASA is not only funding two new ATLAS telescopes, it’s funding the whole project. And B612 has nothing to do with “the systems in place,” as far as I know. And, yes, I suppose one could call ATLAS “the planet’s” project, as the work the project is doing serves the public interest, but IMHO it would be more accurate to describe ATLAS as “the NASA-funded” project developed by the University of Hawaii.

To provide further clarification, the NASA-funded Catalina Sky Survey was the first observing project to report the detection of 2018 LA. Follow-up observations by ATLAS reduced uncertainties in predictions of the asteroid’s so-called impact corridor (that is, predictions of where it would enter the atmosphere). The MPC and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Center for NEO Studies (CNEOS), funded by NASA, determined the asteroid’s entry point based on observations reported to the MPC.

“What started in 2002 as a visionary idea to develop the technology to deflect an asteroid has grown into a world-renowned organization and scientific institute with a key role in the emerging field of planetary defense,” Remy writes. Yes, B612 is “world-renowned,” because of its relentless publicity campaigning.  B612’s “visionary idea” did not lead to the development of deflection technology. Its proposal to build a space-based NEO survey telescope called Sentinel did not move forward.

The only funded planetary defense mission, intended to demonstrate the kinetic-impact deflection method – the Double Asteroid Redirect Test – is a NASA-funded project being developed by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. Baltimore magazine recently published a good article about the DART mission, giving credit where credit is due.

Though I’m sure the people at B612 would argue with me on this point, I say that it’s not accurate for B612 to claim that it plays “a key role” in planetary defense. While, yes, B612 does contribute to the ongoing worldwide effort to raise public awareness about the need for planetary defense, I don’t see it as playing a key role, and typically its public-awareness efforts give too much credit to B612 and too little credit to all the individuals and organizations who are actually doing the work.

I also would not call planetary defense an “emerging” field. A major step forward in understanding the risk of possible future asteroid impacts with Earth was the discovery of a large, buried impact crater in Mexico, the Chicxulub crater, and the finding, published by Luis and Walter Alvarez and Michael Asaro in 1980, that this crater was caused by the impact of a 10-15-kilometer (6-9-mile) sized asteroid with Earth. In 1994, the break-up and impact of Comet Shoemaker-Levy with Jupiter, long predicted and widely observed from the ground and from space, provided real-time evidence that impact events continue to occur in the solar system. NASA established a NEO observations program in 1998, responding to a directive from Congress. NASA officially established its Planetary Defense Coordination Office (encompassing the NEO observations program) in January 2016. IAWN and SMPAG have been operating since 2014, as I’ve noted above. Planetary defense conferences (PDCs) have been taking place every two years since 2004. A recommendation coming out of the most recent PDC, last year in Tokyo, was: “Awareness of existing networks and groups like IAWN and SMPAG should be increased.” B612 does not seem to be doing much to increase awareness of existing networks and groups. Rather, it keeps calling out a need for things that are already in place.

Remy claims, “For years, B612, our partners, and a global community of dedicated scientists and researchers have advocated for increased asteroid detection and many victories have resulted from those efforts. Asteroid detection is now debated seriously in scientific, governmental, and public conversations.” I would give the lion’s share of credit for advocacy to the “global community of dedicated scientists and researchers” who are actually doing the work.

Remy claims B612’s Asteroid Decision Analysis and Mapping project (ADAM) “will support transparent analysis of asteroid data with open and published algorithms and will be used to assess threatening situations, identify and analyze the trade-offs in possible realistic courses of action, and create actionable decision-making analysis.” See this July report from CNEOS describing how this work is already being done. All data reported to the MPC are publicly available. CNEOS’ Sentry system, a highly automated collision monitoring system that continually scans the most current asteroid catalog for possibilities of future impact with Earth over the next 100 years,” makes all of its data publicly available. CNEOS’ Scout system provides trajectory analysis and hazard assessment for recently detected objects listed on the MPC’s NEO Confirmation page (detections reported on this page are in need of confirmation by other observers). The only difference between what CNEOS and other organizations are already doing and what this ADAM project proposes to do is perhaps open-source software.

B612’s annual report includes an abstract of a paper authored by B612 co-founder Ed Lu and Richard Carty making the case for “the need, value, and opportunities for a dynamic map of our solar system. This map will be served up by the engine the Asteroid Institute is building called [ADAM] project. The paper will be published in late 2018.” If this paper is to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, peer review should ensure that the authors cite all the work on this mapping that’s already been done.

There’s more to critique, but I’m done for now.

My repeated attempts to clarify B612’s rhetoric remind me of my repeated attempts to convince my cat not to walk on the dining table. They both keep doing it. But I’ll keep doing it, too.

Big-ticket rockets in the news



Lots of rockets are in the news this week. Not all the news is good, and not all of it is new.

Yesterday the U.S. Air Force announced it had awarded nine-figure contracts to three aerospace companies for new expendable launch vehicle projects. According to Reuters, the value of the contracts is a total of $2.3 billion.

The contracts go to Blue Origin ($500 million) to build a launcher called New Glenn, United launch Services ($967 million) – an arm of the United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Boeing and Lockheed Martin – to build a launcher called Vulcan, and Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems ($791.6 million) to build a launcher called OmegA. These rockets will be designed to launch spacecraft, not people.

As of today, according to Forbes magazine, Jeff Bezos – who owns Blue Origin – has a net worth of $144.7 billion. With a B. He could build his new rocket all by himself. (He’s received subsidies and contracts from NASA to build his New Shepard rocket system.)

Meanwhile, NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) released a report on the development of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS), designed to launch people into space, first to the International Space Station (ISS), and then, presumably, elsewhere. Marcia Smith of Space Policy Online reports that “poor performance by [contractor] Boeing and program management by NASA are blamed…. Boeing will spend twice what was planned” – $8.9 billion rather than the $4.2 billion awarded to build the system – “through 2021 for building two core stages and an upper stage while delivery of the first core stage has slipped 2.5 years already and may be further delayed.” See Marcia’s report for a good summary of the OIG report.

In a 2016 report on the development of so-called “commercial” human-rated launch systems – SLS and SpaceX’s Falcon 9/crew Dragon system – the NASA OIG said that NASA’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) program had awarded fixed-price contracts worth a total of $6.8 billion to Boeing ($4.2 billion) and SpaceX ($2.6 billion). “Given delays in the Commercial Crew Program,” according to this report, NASA had to extend its contract with the Russian space agency Roscosmos for astronaut transportation through 2018 “at an additional cost of $490 million or $82 million a seat for six more seats.” Roscosmos’s Soyuz rocket is the only means of transporting NASA astronauts to and from the ISS.

As Space Policy Online reported today, this week’s launch of a NASA astronaut and a Russian cosmonaut to the International Space Station was a failure. The Russian Soyuz rocket malfunctioned, the crew capsule separated from the rocket, and the crew returned safely to Earth. (Will NASA get a refund, or will it have to pay twice to get its guy to the ISS?)

The 2016 NASA OIG report noted that “in November 2013, we reported on the status of and challenges facing the Commercial Crew Program.In that report, we noted the Program had received only 38 percent of its requested funding for fiscal years (FY) 2011 through 2013, and as a result, NASA had delayed the first crewed mission to the ISS from 2015 to at least 2017.”

In August of this year, NASA reported that its “Commercial Crew Program and SpaceX are finalizing plans for launch day operations as they prepare for the company’s first flight test with astronauts on board. The teams are working toward a crew test flight” to the ISS with two astronauts “in April 2019. In preparation for this test flight, SpaceX and NASA will continue to complete and review the important analyses and tests leading to launch.” (Whatever that means.)

So it appears that now we’re looking at 2019 (not 2015, not 2017) as the earliest possible date for a NASA “commercial crew” launch. And somehow I doubt that it will happen next year…

I work with space science programs at NASA – astrobiology and planetary defense. What does all this rocket stuff have to do with space science? It eats up a huge chunk of federal funding available for space activities. By my estimate, human space flight activities take up at least two thirds of NASA’s budget, leaving the rest for aeronautics, science, facilities…. (And I won’t even get into the military space budget….) Meanwhile, space science missions are growing more and more complex, and thus more and more expensive.

The cost of NASA’s Europa Clipper project — an orbiter mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, now in its design phase, has been estimated at $2 billion. Given the history of space science mission development (take a look at the James Webb Space Telescope project, which is years behind schedule and many billions over budget), the cost of this mission is likely to be much higher. The astrobiology community would love to see NASA take on a Europa lander mission – which undoubtedly would be more expensive than Clipper, an orbiter mission. NASA’s budget for planetary defense – the request (not yet appropriated) for the current fiscal year is $150 million – is not big enough to fully fund the development of a space-based near-Earth-object survey telescope, a $500 million mission that the planetary defense community has long advocated as a top priority.

Yesterday the National Academy of Sciences released a report on NASA’s astrobiology strategy for the search for life in the universe.  The expert panel that prepared this report recommended that “to advance the search for life in the universe, NASA should accelerate the development and validation, in relevant environments, of mission-ready, life detection technologies. In addition, it should integrate astrobiological expertise in all mission stages— from inception and conceptualization to planning, development, and operations.” The report also says that NASA should push forward the development of “high-contrast starlight suppression technologies in near-term space- and ground-based direct imaging missions,” and that “NASA’s programs and missions should reflect a dedicated focus on research and exploration of subsurface habitability” on other planetary bodies. These are all sound recommendations, but it will take more than the $65 million a year or so in NASA’s budget for astrobiology to make such things happen. (I will post more about this report sometime soon.)

Here’s my five cents worth: given that space science missions are focused more and more intently on the search for habitable environments and life in the solar system and beyond, astrobiology should be elevated from a research and analysis program to a full-blown program, with a big enough budget to develop life-detection missions.  As the National Academy of Sciences report noted, astrobiology investigations now fly as add-ons to mission designed for other purposes – such as the Mars Exploration Rovers and the Mars Science Laboratory. As to planetary defense, though it’s still not big enough to fully fund the development of a space-based NEO survey telescope, the 2019 budget request for it does elevate planetary defense from a research program to a full-blown program with the potential for developing missions.

On a final note, earlier this week Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson said – for the umpty-umpth time over many years – that he will be launching his first tourist-in-space flight into suborbital space, um, soon. Branson told CNBC“that he hoped to be onboard an early Virgin Galactic flight ‘in months not years’, with passengers willing to part with $250,000 (£192,000) taking their seats ‘not too long after that’.” I’ll believe it when I see it.

Technosignatures: SETI in sheep’s clothing


Last month I attended (virtually) a scientific workshop on “technosignatures,” held in Houston and sponsored by NASA. It was weird, fascinating, and ultimately frustrating.

NASA sponsored this workshop, organized by scientists with the Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS), because Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Science Committee, which is in charge of authorizing NASA programs, is fascinated by SETI and thinks NASA should get back in the game. Rep. Smith, by means of a video clip, opened the workshop by saying he’s read every single book on the subject.

Michael New, the NASA Science Mission Directorate’s deputy associate administrator for research, said at the workshop that NASA was sponsoring the meeting because “there’s language in our authorization bill that says we should be interested.” New also mentioned that NASA’s call for proposals for exobiology research does not exclude SETI research in general – only searches for radio signals of extraterrestrial intelligent origin.

Scientists engaged in the search for evidence of extraterrestrial intelligent life (SETI, for search for extraterrestrial intelligence) have decided that “SETI” has acquired a taint. So now they say they are searching for evidence of technosignatures – that is, evidence of technologies produced by intelligent life. It’s still SETI, as far as I’m concerned (see below for more on what a technosignature might be).

Scientists at the workshop offered up many interesting, intriguing, far-out, and to a large degree infeasible (either financially or technologically, though mostly financially) proposals for advancing the search for evidence of ETI life.

Sofia Sheikh of Penn State University reported to the group on recommendations from an ad hoc committee on “SETI nomenclature.” For example, the recommended definition for (or meaning of) “intelligence” is “the quality of being able to deliberately engineer technology which might be detectable using astronomical observation techniques.” (This definition excludes non-human varieties of intelligence – say, octopus intelligence, bird intelligence…). The group also recommends rejecting use of the term “advanced” because it’s a vague term that stems from “deprecated theories” (that is, the belief that human life is the pinnacle of evolution and that human life is superior to all other forms of life on Earth).

Nonetheless, other presenters referred to the so-called “Kardashev scale” – proposed in 1964 by Russian radio astronomer and SETI advocate Nikolai Kardashev – “ a method of measuring a civilization’s level of technological advancement based on the amount of energy a civilization is able to use,” according to Wikipedia.

David Grinspoon of the Planetary Science Institute questioned the wisdom of the Kardashev scale. The history of human civilizations “disqualifies us from considering ourselves an intelligent” species. So in pursuing SETI, “what we seek is not what we are.” An “inevitable-expansion fallacy” is embedded in the Kardashev scale, an assumption that the more energy a civilization consumes, the more developed it will be. Intelligent civilizations on Earth have not acted very intelligently.

Adam Frank of Rochester University posed the question, “How do we avoid anthropocentric tunnel-vision?” (Good question. It was on display in a number of presentations at the workshop. See below.)

SETI Institute president Bill Diamond claimed that “all of humanity is curious” about extraterrestrial intelligent life. (I myself am not aware of any convincing evidence showing this to be the case.) Diamond also claimed that “SETI can only serve to drive greater public interest” in space exploration and that SETI “can enhance NASA’s brand.” (These are questionable claims, and I disagree.)

Shubham Kanodia of Penn State noted that our knowledge of the “known” universe is severely lacking and that SETI scientists have searched very little of the “cosmic haystack” for evidence of ETI – “a bathtub of water out of all of Earth’s oceans.” Why? “Because we haven’t searched that much.” (Though this was not Kanodia’s point, the point to me is that the search space is so vast that the idea of a thorough search is implausible.)

Others argued that SETI researchers should be looking for evidence of non-terrestrial artifacts in our own solar system – say, on Mars or Venus, planets that may have been habitable billions of years ago. Ravi Kopparapu of Penn State said researchers have searched very little of the searchable space in the solar system, “Repeated searches with time” may yield finds. He also said what’s needed to advance the search for ETI artifacts is “further synthesis and study on the persistence of uniquely industrial byproducts in ocean sediment environments.”

Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said we could explore the subsurface of Venus and Mars with ground-penetrating radar and deep drilling to look for buried signs of past civilizations. Such searches should look for metals, multiple extinction horizons, nuclear waste, plastics, and synthetic chemicals, for example. Something to think about: “What will the fingerprint of the Anthropocene era” – the current human-dominated era of life on Earth – “be in the eventual sedimentary record hundreds of millions of years from now? Fingerprints of past industry may be more apparent in geology than in artifacts, he said.

(These arguments for searching for ETI artifacts are based on the “anthropocentric-tunnel-vision” assumption that ET intelligence would be like human intelligence – not, say, octopus intelligence.)

It’s easy to design an algorithm to look for a specific hypothesized signal, noted David Kipping of Columbia University, but the challenge is knowing how to recognize “the truly weird.”

Other presenters offered ideas about how to employ data mining, machine learning, artificial intelligence, near-infrared/infrared astronomical observations.

Jamie Drew, chief of staff for the billionaire-backed Breakthrough Initiatives, reported on partners in the organization’s SETI project, Breakthrough Listen, including the Green Bank Observatory, the University of California-Berkeley, and the Square Kilometer Array. The project is also pursuing a partnership with China’s FAST 500 Telescope, now the largest radio telescope in the world. Drew also noted that Breakthrough will not be proceeding with its proposed Breakthrough Message project due to its controversial nature (many scientists think it would be unwise, perhaps unethical, to send messages out in hopes that they would be received by ETI).

It seems to me that the SETI community has done a good enough job of tapping into billionaire reserves (Paul Allen for the Allen Telescope Array, Yuri Milner for Breakthrough Listen). NASA receives far more qualified proposals for funding for astrophysics and planetary science research than it has the budget to fund. Why add SETI? And even if Rep. Smith’s proposed $10 million a year for two years for SETI at NASA is appropriated – an unknown right now – I can’t see how the sorts of science projects discussed at the workshop will get very far along. Then again, I’m a self-described SETI skeptic.

Unearthing a bit of Soviet space history


Caption: Josef Gitelson (left) and Genry Lisovsky at Bios-3 in Krasnoyarsk

I’ve just moved into a new home – my second move in a little more than a year. In preparing for my first move, from Arlington, Virginia, to Sarasota, Florida, I culled an immense amount of space-related books, reports, papers, and notes from the collection I’d amassed over my 35 years of work in the space community.

Now, after my second move – to a new home in Sarasota – I’m sorting through what’s left of my space collection. And I keep coming across interesting things….

Right now I’m looking at notes dated May 16, 1989, on a meeting I had, while working with NASA’s space life sciences program, with two fascinating Soviet scientists. I remember this meeting quite vividly. (Somehow, NASA scientists were able to maintain collaborative relationships with Soviet scientists throughout much of the Cold War period.*)

Josef Gitelson was director of the Institute of Biophysics at the Siberian branch of the USSR Academy of Sciences in (then secret-city) Krasnoyarsk. His colleague Yevgeny Shepelev was with the Institute of Biomedical Problems in Moscow. Both worked on the Bios project in Krasnoyarsk, started in 1961. (I remember that Shepelev grinned like a Cheshire cat and chain-smoked throughout the meeting. Gitelson was more solemn….)

The Bios project developed a series of “abioregenerative” life-support systems to demonstrate what cosmonauts would need, “possibly in space but more likely on the surfaces of the Moon or Mars. Learning to construct and to operate such a life-support system was a goal of the Soviet space program from its inception….” (Frank Salisbury, Josef Gitelson, and Genry Lisovsky, “Bios-3: Siberian experiments in bioregenerative life support,” BioScience,Volume 47, No. 9, 1997.)

Bios-1, built to support one person, was completed in 1965. In 1968 a new chamber was added to the facility to grow food plants, and Bios-1 became Bios-2. Bios-3, built underground, was completed in 1972. The first three-person crew – two men and one woman – spent six months in Bios-3 during the winter of 1972-73.

In 1962, Shepelev became the first person to spend 24 hours in Bios-1, “breathing only oxygen produced by 45 liters of Chlorella algae.” (Renata Tyszczuk, Provisional Cities: Cautionary Tales for the Anthropocene, Routledge, 2017, np. Also see Sabine Hohler, Spaceship Earth in the Environmental Age, 1960-1990, Routledge, 2016, p. 119.)

Gitelson and Shepelev told me that the last Bios experiment with humans took place in 1984. Most experiments took place between 1970 and 1980, and human crews spent a cumulative total of two years in the habitats. (My notes show that Bios-3 had 120 square meters of surface area inside and 600 cubic meters of volume. I should note that these numbers differ from numbers cited in other sources I’ve cited in this post.)

“Sci-Fi, Science, and Space Geek” Mohan Sanjeevan reports on his Facebook page, “On the walls of the Institute of Biophysics in Krasnoyarsk hang black-and-white photos telling the story of the groundbreaking results, obtained during the 1960s and 70s. Bios-3, an 315 cubic-metre habitat, was designed to mimic a spacecraft headed to Mars; today, the simulator is a rust heap, and the “no photos” sign no longer applies. The historical images depict happy and tired subjects, presented with flowers upon their release from the simulator…. The Russians wanted to re-create the Earth’s cycle in a closed system, under controlled conditions, and transfer the model to spacecraft and space stations…. The Soviet Union also had dreams of a Mars colony and hoped to one day have space stations scattered across the solar system.”

(Tomorrow, Mars-colonization advocates – I’d guess overwhelmingly American – gather to begin their annual Mars Society meeting. Stay tuned for Mars madness, coming at you from Pasadena, California.)

Reading my notes on my meeting with Gitelson and Shepelev has reminded me that I am very fortunate to have met and worked with, and learned from, so many interesting people in my 35 years in the space community. Thank you, everybody!


*According to Roald Sagdeev, former head of the Soviet Space Research Institute, the United States “was pragmatic about keeping up its contacts with Soviet scientists” during the Cold War. U.S.-Soviet consultations on space science issues took place through a channel between the U.S. and Soviet national academies of sciences. NASA scientists were especially interested in learning about the health effects of long-duration space flight. And U.S. and Soviet scientists met regularly at meetings of the Committee on Space Research and the International Astronautical Federation.

(One final note: I met Roald Sagdeev at an International Space Year meeting in New Hampshire in 1992. We shared a dinner table at a restaurant in Main – I think it was the Cliff House in Ogunquit –  and I watched him eat his first-ever lobster.)