Planetary protection: don’t mess with it

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Credit: http://cmapsnasacmex.ihmc.us/viewer/cmap/1025200008797_1345610047_1455

The estimable space policy analyst Marcia Smith, who’s founder and editor of Spacepolicyonline.com, 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.

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Wacky speculations about alien intelligence: ‘Oumuamua

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Credit: shutter stock.com

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 arxiv.org. 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 arxiv.org, “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 arxiv.org 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 npr.org 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.)