Preparing for subsurface planetary exploration


DEPTHX. Credit:

In October 2018, a study committee of the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS) – specifically, the Committee on the Astrobiology Science Strategy for the Search for Life in the Universe, Space Studies Board –  published a reportproviding recommendations for a NASA astrobiology strategy for the search for life in the universe. IMHO, the report is on the mark. (Whether the White House and Congress will provide needed funding to enable the implementation of these recommendations remains to be seen.)

I am a (part-time) consultant to the NASA astrobiology program and was asked to help prepare a NASA response to the NAS committee’s recommendations. Much of the content I prepared was deleted. But it’s still interesting. So I’ll provide it here.

One of the NAS study committee’s recommendations was that “NASA’s programs and missions should reflect a dedicated focus on research and exploration of subsurface habitability in light of recent advancesdemonstrating the breadth and diversity of life in Earth’s subsurface, the history and nature of subsurface fluids on Mars, and potential habitats for life on ocean worlds.”

Exploring for evidence of subsurface habitability in the solar system is a big deal in planetary science these days. Astrobiologists are itching to get beneath the surface of Mars, Europa, and Enceladus (I should note that such missions are only ideas at this point…but good ideas, IMHO).

The work on this goal that the NASA astrobiology program has funded over the past 10-15 years (and continues to fund today) is fascinating (at least to this space science geek). And it shows how slowly, but methodically, the development of planetary exploration technologies proceeds, step by step.

Over the past several years NASA has taken some steps to advance research and exploration of subsurface habitability by funding a number of projects to develop and demonstrate subsurface exploration technologies and techniques. NASA’s Planetary Science and Technology Through Analog Research (PSTAR) Program has funded the Atacama Rover Astrobiology Drilling Studies (ARADS) project, led by Brian Glass of NASA Ames Research Center. The ARADS project, intended to iteratively develop a simulated Mars rover mission, conducted its first field test in Chile’s Atacama Desert in 2016. Several instruments have been designed, developed or modified to be tested in ARADS field experiments, including the fifth generation of a series of space-prototype, one- to two-meter-class rotary-percussive drills by Honeybee Robotics; a sample-transfer robotic arm from MDA Aerospace (the developer of robotic arms for NASA’s Phoenix and InSight missions to Mars); and a new autonomous mid-sized rover concept (K- REX2) developed by NASA Ames.

NASA also has funded the Mars Analog Rio Tinto Experiment (MARTE), led by Carol Stoker of NASA Ames. The MARTE project is developing drilling, core- and sample-handling, and instrument technologies relevant to searching for life in the martian subsurface and demonstrating them in a Mars-analog site on Earth, Spain’s Rio Tinto region. The MARTE drilling system is being developed by Honeybee Robotics for future use on Mars. Honeybee Robotics has developed drilling and sample-handling systems for NASA’s last three Mars landers, including systems for the last three of NASA’s Mars landers, including the first drill ever to look inside a rock on Mars and the sample-handling system on the Mars Science Laboratory. (I visited Honeybee Robotics in New York City several years ago – those people produce amazing technology.)

NASA’sMars 2020 rover will feature a drill that can collect core samples of the most scientifically promising rocks and soils and cache them on the surface of Mars for future retrieval and return to Earth.The European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) ExoMars 2020 rover willcollect samples with a drill down to a depth of two meters and analyze them with next-generation instruments in an onboard laboratory. NASA and ESA are closely coordinating work on these two missions and will be sharing data from science operations.NASA is providing a major portion of the premier instrument for ESA’s ExoMars mission: the mass spectrometer for the Mars Organic Molecule Analyzer.  In addition, European scientists are on a number of instrument teams for NASA’s Mars 2020 mission.  In 2018,the NASA astrobiology program awarded a $7 million grant to a Georgia Institute of Technology-led Oceans Across Space and Time alliance to intensify the search for life in our solar system’s present and past oceans. This alliance is a member of the Network for Life Detection (N-FoLD), an astrobiology research coordination network (RCN) focusing on life detection strategies and methods.

The NASA astrobiology program has supported two recent “workshopswithout walls” (virtual workshops) that focused on research and exploration of subsurface habitability: “Upstairs Downstairs: Consequences of Internal Planet Evolution for the Habitability and Detectability of Life on Extrasolar Planets,” held February 17 – 19, 2016, in Tempe, Arizona, and virtually; and “Serpentinizing Systems Science,” held January 31, 2017, virtually. NASA Astrobiology is also co-hosting a conference, “Mars Extant Life: What’s Next?” January 29–February 1, 2019, at the National Cave and Karst Research Institute. This conference will focus on understanding and discussing strategies for exploring candidate target environments on Mars that may host evidence of extant life including surface, shallow subsurface, and deep subsurface niches.

Astrobiology is well represented on NASA’s Europa Clipper mission team. Europa Clipper (to launch some time in the 2020s) willconduct detailed reconnaissance of Jupiter’s moon Europa to see whether the icy body might be habitable. The science definition team for the Europa Lander mission concept study included several astrobiologists, including Alison Murray as one of the co-chairs and Ken Nealson, Chris German (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute), Britney Schmidt (Georgia Institute of Technology), and Alexis Templeton (University of Colorado) as team members. (All three of these scientists have done fascinating astrobiology research in the field.) The SDT identified three science goals for the mission: detect and characterize biosignatures and signs of life, analyze in-situ habitability, and prepare for future exploration. The mission concept team identified a model payload for this mission that includes, among other instruments, a microscope for life detection and an organic compositional analyzer.

The technological challenges of exploring subsurface environments on icy worlds are formidable. On Earth, researchers have only reached a depth of 3.5 kilometers beneath ice. Europa’s ice shell could be as much as 15 kilometers deep. Consequently, the NASA astrobiology program has supported a number of technology development and demonstration projects for in-situ exploration of subsurface environments on other planetary bodies.

For example, the program has supported the development of four Stone Aerospace autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) that are prototypes for subsurface exploration of Europa: DEPTHX (Deep Phreatic Thermal Explorer), ENDURANCE (Environmentally Non-Disturbing Under-ice Robotic ANtarctiC Explorer), VALKYRIE (an ice-penetrating robot), and ARTEMIS (Autonomous Rovers/airborne-radar Transects of the Environment beneath the McMurdo Ice Shelf). (Bill Stone, founder and head of Stone Aerospace, is a brilliant engineer and obsessed with Europa.)

The NASA astrobiology program also funded the development oftwo underwater autonomous vehicles (AUVs) called Jaguar and Puma, developed by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and deployed on WHOI’s 2007 Arctic Gakkel vents expedition (AGAVE). Jaguar and Puma are prototypes of AUVs that could look for evidence of subsurface hydrothermal activity on other planetary bodies. The NASA astrobiology program also funded the Monterey BayAquarium Research Institute’s development of another subsurface planetary exploration prototype, an Environmental Sample Processor for Deep-Sea Seep and Hydrothermal Vent Applications.

The Science Mission Directorate’s Planetary Instrument Concepts for the Advancement of Solar System Observations (PICASSO), MATuration of Instruments for Solar System Exploration (MatISSE), and Planetary Science and Technology from Analog Research (PSTAR) R&A programs have also funded a number of projects aimed at aiding the exploration of subsurface planetary environments. For example, the PICASSO program has funded work on a rover-mounted dielectric (non-conducting) spectrometer for in-situ subsurface planetary exploration, which could measure subsurface material composition at radio frequencies; and a compact color “biofinder” for fast, non-contact detection of biomarkers, biomolecules and polyaromatic hydrocarbons in ocean worlds.

The MatISSE program has funded the development and testing of a prototype digital beam-forming polarimetric synthetic aperture radar (look it up) for subsurface imaging. This instrument could detect and map buried ice deposits and measure the depths of such deposits. The PSTAR program has funded the development and demonstration of a thermal high-voltage ocean-penetrator research platform, a cryobot (a robot that can operate in freezing temperatures) capable of rapid, deep subglacial access that carries an onboard science payload optimized for environmental characterization and life detection; a seismometer designed to investigate ice and ocean structure (SIIOS) on Europa and Enceladus; the SUBSEA project, which is exploring the habitability of a seamount (a mountain on the sea floor whose peak is well below the surface of the water) off the coast of the Big Island of Hawaii as an analog for icy moons, using two submarine-type remotely operated vehicles; and the DEEP project – Detecting Extraterrestrial Piezophiles in ocean-world analog environments – which is testing a high-pressure sampling system in deep hydrothermal vents in the mid-Cayman Rise that would allow sample retrieval and manipulation without decompression, enabling sample-handling protocols that optimize life detection in high-pressure environments. (A piezophile, also known as a barophile, is an organism that thrives in high-pressure environments.)

NASA’s publicity machine tends to focus on promoting missions. But those missions are made possible by projects such as those described here. It’s going to be a long, slow trip to exploring subsurface environments in the solar system. But the trip will be worth it, I think. Given NASA’s current obsession with sending people back to the Moon and on to Mars, I keep thinking that robotic planetary exploration has been what’s delivered the goods for decades.


Moon-Mars Madness, Redux



As Yogi Berra once said, “it’s like déjà vu all over again.”

Last week, the Vice President of the United States, who chairs the National Space Council, told NASA that the President is directing the agency to land people back on the Moon by 2024, “by any means necessary.”

Today, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine testified to the House Science, Space and Technology Committee – the committee in charge of authorizing NASA spending – about the administration’s $20 billion fiscal year 2020 budget request for NASA – which does not include funds for a return to the Moon by 2024.

In fact, the 2020 budget request calls for a return to the Moon by 2028.

Rep. Kendra Horn (D-OK), chair of the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics noted in her opening statement for today’s hearing, in September 2018, “a full year and a half AFTER its Congressionally-directed due date, the Committee received the report directed in Section 435 of the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017.”

According to Rep. Horn, this report – the NASA Exploration Campaign Report – “is a high-level strategy…mainly a plan for a plan…and may not ultimately play a substantive role in efforts to place humans in Mars orbit by 2033. Further specificity of NASA’s long-term plans in a public document would help Congress and other public policy officials make informed decisions over the coming decades.”

According to the Exploration Campaign Report, “The National Space Exploration Campaign strategy is ready. It includes direction from the White House and Congress, with input from industry, academia, international partners and, most importantly, the American public. It is not a repeat of efforts of the past 50 years. The National Space Exploration Campaign does not assume or require significant funding increases.”


Today, Bridenstine told the House committee that meeting the President’s 2024 goal would require a supplemental budget request.

According to the Exploration Campaign Report, “NASA is building a plan for Americans to orbit the Moon, starting in 2023, and land astronauts on the surface no later than the late 2020s…. By the late 2020s, a lunar lander capable of transporting crews and cargo will begin sortie missions to the surface of the Moon.”

Uh huh.

Those of us who have been working in the space community for some time (for me, since 1983), we’ve heard “bold” calls over and over again for a return to the Moon and human missions to Mars. I have a large stack of reports in my office on Moon-Mars proposals and plans.

In 1986, President Reagan received a report from a National Commission on Space (NCoS – which I worked for) outlining goals for the next 20 years of U.S. space exploration. NCoS offered a rationale for exploring and settling the solar system and a “vision” of making the solar system “the home of humanity.”  At the same time, NCoS noted, “financial realities will dictate the pace at which we proceed.”

By 2006, we had not proceeded very far along the way to executing the NCoS vision.

In 1989, President George H.W. Bush directed NASA to develop what became the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI), which would send people back to the Moon and on to Mars. According to NASA’s “Report of the 90-Day Study on Human Exploration of the Moon and Mars” (November 1989), “The basic mission sequence is clear”: first build a space station, then “return to the Moon to stay early in the next century, and then journey to Mars” by 2019.

In 1991, a “Synthesis Group” tasked with reporting on the Space Exploration Initiative produced four possible architectures for the SEI.

Funding did not materialize.

In 2004, President George W. Bush announced his “Vision for Space Exploration”, directing NASA to develop a Crew Exploration Vehicle by 2008 “and to conduct the first [crewed] mission no later than 2014. The Crew Exploration Vehicle will be capable of ferrying astronauts and scientists to the Space Station after the shuttle is retired. But the main purpose of this spacecraft will be to carry astronauts beyond our orbit to other worlds…. Beginning no later than 2008, we will send a series of robotic missions to the lunar surface to research and prepare for future human exploration. Using the Crew Exploration Vehicle, we will undertake extended human missions to the moon as early as 2015, with the goal of living and working there for increasingly extended periods.”

And…here we are.

In her opening statement for this morning’s hearing with Bridenstine, Science, Space, and Technology Committee chair Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) got right to the point:

“You have stated that NASA’s fiscal year 2020 budget request is a good one, apparently in part because the President didn’t cut your budget as much as he is proposing to cut the rest of America’s federal R&D investments, including misguided and harmful cuts to DOE’s and NSF’s research budgets. I am not persuaded. In fact, I find both this NASA budget request and your written testimony for today’s hearing to be disappointing and inadequate.”

Rep. Johnson indicated that the budget request as it stands will likely not make it through Congress. “The President’s budget request for FY 2020 proposes the same ill-advised cuts to important NASA science and education initiatives that it did last year—cuts which Congress has already considered and rejected in the FY 2019 appropriations act.” She and other members of the committee criticized proposals to de-fund key NASA STEM activities—especially those that support students – the WFIRST mission – “the highest ranked astrophysics decadal priority” and “two critical Earth Science missions.” These cuts “made no sense last year,” Rep. Johnson said, “and they make no sense this year. I have little doubt that those cuts will be rejected by Congress once again.”

“And what is the justification for this crash program?” Johnson went on. “To quote the Vice President again, it’s because ‘we’re in a space race today, just as we were in the 1960s, and the stakes are even higher.’ Moreover, according to the Vice President, the Chinese have ‘revealed their ambition to seize the lunar strategic high ground,’ whatever that means. The simple truth is that we are not in a space race to get to the Moon. We won that race a half-century ago, as this year’s commemoration of Apollo 11 makes clear. And using outdated Cold War rhetoric about an adversary seizing the lunar strategic high ground only begs the question of why if that is the Vice President’s fear, the Department of Defense with its more than $700 billion budget request, doesn’t seem to share that fear and isn’t tasked with preventing it from coming to pass…. Given the absence of an urgent crisis, it would be the height of irresponsibility for the Vice President of the United States to direct NASA to land astronauts on the Moon within the next five years without knowing what it will cost, how achievable the schedule is, and how it will impact NASA’s other programs.”

I heartily agree with Rep. Johnson.

Rep. Horn had this to say in her statement:

“Let’s take a moment to review the last three to four months. First, the Administration shut down the Federal Government for a total of 35 days…. [M]any projects will experience delays and some level of cost increase due to the disruption.  Second, in a delayed release of the FY 2020 budget request due to the shutdown, the Administration proposed a more ambitious Moon program– to send humans to the lunar surface by 2028 — while also proposing to cut a half billion dollars from the agency’s topline relative to the FY 2019 enacted appropriation. Third, just two weeks AFTER the Administration released its FY 2020 request for NASA, the Vice President announced that ‘it is the stated policy of this administration and the United States of America to return American astronauts to the Moon within the next five years’….Fourth, last Friday, again just weeks AFTER releasing the FY 2020 Request, the Committee received notice of NASA’s request for a major reorganization of NASA’s technology and exploration activities that NASA is proposing through a ‘reprogramming request’ to the Committee on Appropriations.”

(Are you confused? I am.)

Horn went on, “This request would create a new Moon to Mars Mission Directorate that would subsume the space technology program into a Directorate focused on large exploration development programs like the Gateway. NASA’s request proposes other major organizational changes that, if approved, would bypass this Committee’s authorizing role in considering such drastic reorganizational changes.”

“These issues are not partisan,” she said. “We have learned over several Congresses and Administrations that attempting to implement major programs through fits and starts creates confusion and often delays progress. Changes in direction also present challenges for the Committee’s work toward providing effective guidance and policy through the reauthorization process.”

She is right on.

Finally, I will note that a recent poll by a reputable organization, the Pew Research Center, showed that respondents ranked returning people to the Moon and sending people to Mars #8 and #9 – next to last and last – on a list of nine priorities for NASA.

Perhaps the worst aspect of these stop-and-start plans is that so many people work diligently on them, only to see them shelved. NASA wastes hundreds of millions of dollars on studies mandated by the White House and Congress for projects and programs that don’t receive adequate funding. (I wonder if we’ll ever know how much money NASA invested in the now-defunct Asteroid Initiative.) It’s too bad.


NASA’s $21 billion budget request: fair and balanced?



Welcome to the perpetual numbers game in Washington, D.C.

The White House released its fiscal year 2020 budget request for the government on Tuesday. In a message to employees that day, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said the “2020 NASA budget is one of the strongest on record for our storied agency. At $21 billion, this budget represents a nearly 6 percent increase over last year’s request and comes at a time of constrained resources across the federal government, and is a huge vote of confidence for all of your hard work and dedication. We will go to the Moon in the next decade with innovative, new technologies and systems to explore more locations across the lunar surface than ever before. This time, when we go to the Moon, we will stay. We will use what we learn as we move forward to the Moon to take the next giant leap – sending astronauts to Mars.”

As noted by Marcia Smith, the most astute space policy analyst I know, “It is just a request.” That is, it’s not a budget. “Congress will decide how much money to allocate to the government’s various discretionary functions over the course of the next many months.  Rumors are that the proposal is to increase funding for defense and cut non-defense spending commensurately, which as everyone knows is a non-starter,” Smith says.  “It was dead-on-arrival when Trump proposed essentially the same thing two years ago when Republicans controlled both chambers of Congress, never mind now when Democrats control the House.  It seems that this year’s budget debate will follow a familiar trajectory especially since they once again must decide whether to abide by the budget caps set in the 2011 Budget Control Act (they only did once, in FY2013) and raise the debt limit, which was breached last week.  Another déjà vu moment.”

(And speaking of déjà vu, the NASA budget request includes $109 million for “a Mars sample return mission.” NASA officials have previously proclaimed that the agency would develop such a mission, but funding did not materialize. I’ll blog about this subject later.)

This is from the White House Office of Management and Budget’s  2020 “funding highlights”:

  • “The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is responsible for leading an innovative and sustainable program of exploration with commercial and international partners to enable human expansion across the solar system and bring new knowledge and opportunities back to Earth.
  • The Budget takes steps to achieve lunar exploration goals sooner, improve sustainability of NASA’s exploration campaign, and increase the use of commercial partnerships and other procurement models to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of NASA programs.”
  • “The Budget includes $363 million to support commercial development of a large lunar lander that can initially carry cargo and later astronauts to the surface of the Moon.”
  • “The Budget focuses funding for the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, a heavy-lift expendable launch vehicle, to ensure the rocket is operational in the early 2020s when it will be needed to carry astronauts to the vicinity of the Moon.” (Note: I have no idea what “focuses funding” means. See below.)
  • “The Budget requests $21 billion for NASA, a $283 million or 1.4-percent increase from the 2019 estimate.” (Note: that amount is about a half a billion dollars less than what was actually appropriated for NASA in this fiscal year.)

As to White House priorities, ranking human space flight over other important research and development endeavors does not sit well with House Science, Space, and Technology Committee chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), whose committee has authorizing jurisdiction over NASA. On March 11, she had this to say about the budget request: “President Trump and his Administration have once again rejected reality with this FY20 budget request. This request proposes unreasonably deep cuts to many of the nation’s federal science agencies” – NOT including NASA, I will note. “This proposal is simply absurd and shows a complete disregard for the importance of civilian R&D and science and technology programs. If the President would like Congress to take his request seriously, he should make an effort to work together to craft a meaningful budget proposal.”

It does not sit well with me, either. I am a part-time consultant to NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO), tasked with finding, tracking, and characterizing asteroids and identifying any that might pose a risk of impact with Earth. NASA’s fiscal year 2019 budget for the PDCO is, last I knew, $160 million. At $200 million a year, the PDCO likely could fund building and launching a space-based near-Earth object survey telescope, a project that the community of researchers who find, track, and study asteroids has identified as a top science priority for years. (No one asked me to write this post.)

Eric Berger wrote for Ars Technica on March 11, “Two sources familiar with the thinking of Vice President Mike Pence—who leads US space policy—have said he is frustrated with the slow pace of the nation’s efforts to send humans to the Moon. In particular, he is growing tired of delays with NASA’s Space Launch System rocket” (SLS). The launch is not likely to occur before 2021, if then.

The budget request for NASA in 2020 proposes cutting SLS funding (now about $2 billion a year) by 17 percent.

In 2014, the cost estimate for SLS was $9.7 billion, with first launch proposed for 2018. By 2018, NASA had spent about $11.9 billion on SLS, and it has yet to commit to a first-launch date.

In testimony today to the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee (which has authorizing jurisdiction over NASA), NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said he wants to launch NASA’s so-called Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) in June 2020, on a “commercial rocket.” The SLS was intended to be the launch vehicle for EM-1, which would carry the Orion crew capsule – without crew – and a European-built service module into lunar orbit. (As of 2017, the cost estimate for Orion was $6.6 billion.)

Committee chairman Roger Wicker (R-MS) asked what that commercial rocket might be. Bridenstine said “no rocket exists” as yet and then described a scheme that would require three rocket launches to accomplish EM-1. When Wicker asked how NASA was going to pay for this scheme, Bridenstine said NASA “may need some help from Congress.”

My thinking is that what he meant by “help” is “more money.” So, if Bridenstine’s proposal comes to fruition, then NASA would pay for three launches to execute EM-1 (cost TBD) and continue to fund the development of SLS – now funded at about $2 billion a year.

(Just FYI, NASA’s prime contractors for EM-1 are Aerojet Rocketdyne, Boeing, Jacobs, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman.)

Since the Reagan administration, NASA has been promising to send people back to the Moon and on to Mars. Needed funding has not materialized. At least since the George W. Bush administration, NASA has been promising to conduct a “sustainable” Moon-Mars exploration program. In his testimony today, Bridenstine said, “We are working on a sustainable campaign of exploration, transitioning the International Space Station (ISS), returning humans to the surface of the Moon and lunar orbit, where we will build the systems, deep space infrastructure, and operational capabilities to expand human presence beyond the Earth-Moon system, eventually embarking on human missions to Mars and other destinations.”

(My interpretation of what NASA officials have meant by “sustainable” is not “environmentally sustainable” or even “economically sustainable” but “fiscally/politically sustainable.” In 2007, the late great Molly Macauley – an expert on the economics of space exploration and development – and I submitted a proposal to the National Science Foundation to conduct a study of “Sustainability, a Cosmocentric Ethic, and the Science of Exploration: Framing Future Public Discourse.” It was not funded. We had previously discussed this topic with a NASA planning official – no interest there, either.)

Bridenstine said one step toward accomplishing these goals is for NASA to enter more partnerships with “U.S. commercial companies.” Just a note here: in the space community, “commercial” is an abused term.  The dictionary defines “commercial” as “able to yield or make a profit.” Therefore all companies and corporations are “commercial” – that is, for-profit. While NASA may have changed the way it contracts with companies, those companies have always been “commercial,” even in the days of Apollo and the Space Shuttle. Bridenstine claimed these partnerships would help NASA drive down costs and speed up activity. We’ll see.

Bridenstine said NASA plans for the International Space Station (ISS) to be “completely commercialized” by 2025. Earlier NASA had said it would cease “direct funding” for the ISS in 2025. Now NASA says it will “transition” the ISS to a commercialized facility by 2025. If this actually does come to pass, NASA will still be funding the ISS, if not “directly,” by paying launch companies to fly people and supplies to the ISS and paying other companies to add, replace, or repair equipment and supply power, water, food, and other necessities. Just FYI, NASA’s 2018 budget included $5 billion for “space operations,” which covers the ISS and other crewed flight activities.

NASA has invested at least $100 billion in the ISS over the past 18 years. According to Bridenstine, NASA provides about 77 percent of funding for the U.S. segment of the ISS, in which Canada, Japan, and the European Space Agency are partners.

Meanwhile, at the South by Southwest (SXSW) conference and music festival in Austin, Texas, this week, the Aerospace Industries Association publicized its “vision” of what the aerospace and defense industry might look like in 2050: “morning commutes via flying air taxi, supersonic business travel between continents, and an emerging market for space-based research and manufacturing.”

I find it depressing that what began as a hipster new-music showcase, designed to showcase Austin’s talent, has evolved to showcase Big Business and government as well. (You can read about the origin and evolution of SXSW here.) Sponsors of SXSW 2019 include Capital One, Mercedes Benz, Bud Light, and Uber (which is about to go public and estimated to be worth billions).

Two of SXSW 2019’s “featured sessions” are NASA shows. One, “The legacy of Apollo and the next giant leap,” features former Apollo-era NASA flight director Gerry Griffin, NASA Johnson Space Center deputy director Vanessa Wyche, and NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer Bobak Ferdowski talking about “the future of human space exploration.” The other, “Shooting stars: how NASA works with film and TV,” features NASA’s arts and entertainment liaison Bert Ulrich, NASA JPL public affairs officer Veronica McGregor, NASA JPL social media expert Stephanie Smith, and NASA JPL visual artist Joby Harris.

I don’t see NASA on this year’s list of exhibitors, but I do see the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency and the National Science Foundation. Huh.

More later on Mars sample return.


Asteroid resources: how much do we know?



Last week I blogged about a recent, dubious, assessment – for sale – of the asteroid mining market. My readers know that I think the idea of mining asteroids is far-fetched, to say the least. Today I will comment on the sources of valuations of asteroid resources. As I said last week, my colleagues who study asteroids tell me that no one knows enough about the composition of any given asteroid to assess the value of the resources it contains.

Since last week, I have looked at a paper recently published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, “How many hydrated NEOs are there?”, in which asteroid scientists Andy Rivkin and Francesca DeMeo explain how they have estimated the water resources that some near-Earth asteroids contain. Here’s the “plain-language summary” of their paper (if only all journals provided such summaries):

“We know that some asteroids formed with water ice, and that early in solar system history that ice melted and reacted with rock to create “hydrated minerals”, which have water as part of their structure. Asteroidal hydrated minerals are particularly interesting because they often are found along with organic materials, and it is thought that asteroids may have been important for bringing water and organic materials to the early Earth via impacts. Hydrated minerals are also of interest to asteroid mining companies, which hope to make their extraction and processing as the basis for their business. For these reasons, we are interested in understanding how common hydrated asteroids are in the population of objects with orbits like the Earth’s. There are a few different ways we can make the calculation, but all of the estimates suggest that hydrated asteroids are more common than we would think from the pieces that fall to Earth, and that dozens of them are larger than 1 km in diameter and take less fuel for a round-trip spacecraft than to the surface of the Moon.”

This paper (alas, behind a pay wall) is well done – really, the only well done paper published in a legitimate journal that I’ve seen on the subject of asteroid resources. But I must point out that the water in these asteroids – like most of the water on the Moon – is bound up in rock, and therefore would be a challenge to extract.

Okay, on to the subject of today’s post – the sources of wild-eyed projections of the market value of asteroid resources.

A Luxembourg-government-backed outfit called Space Resources recently reported that a study financed by the Luxembourg Space Agency projected the “space resources utilization industry” would generate up to 170 billion Euro in value over the 2018-2045 period. I took a quick look through the report and saw no references to scientific assessments (or any other sources) of the value of asteroid resources. Recall that Luxembourg has declared an interest in asteroid mining: “With its initiative, Luxembourg has positioned itself as the European hub in the future space resources economy. The exploration and utilization of space resources is set to generate attractive opportunities in Luxembourg, Europe and worldwide, both for established and start-up players.” (I don’t get it.) reported in May 2017 that an asteroid named 16 Psyche is worth $10,000 quadrillion. This asteroid is the target of an upcoming NASA planetary-science mission called Psyche. The science goals of this mission are to “understand a previously unexplored building block of planet formation: iron cores; look inside terrestrial planets, including Earth, by directly examining the interior of a differentiated body, which otherwise could not be seen; explore a new type of world. For the first time, examine a world made not of rock and ice, but metal.” The Psyche mission is not a resource prospecting mission.

Nonetheless, Forbes reported, “If anyone could mine that asteroid, the resulting riches would collapse the paltry Earth economy of around $74 trillion.” The source of the $10,000 quadrillion figure apparently is Psyche principal investigator Lindy Elkins-Tanton. Global News Canada reported in January 2017, “If the 200-kilometre-wide body [16 Psyche] could somehow be transported back to our planet, Elkins-Tanton has calculated that the iron alone would be worth US $10,000 quadrillion.”

A popular source of estimates of asteroid resource values is a 1996 book, Mining the Sky: Untold Riches from the Asteroids, Comets, and Planets, by John S. Lewis, now professor emeritus of planetary science with the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. (Lewis also wrote Asteroid Mining 101: Wealth for a New Space Economy, published in 2014.) According to Wikipedia, in 2013 Lewis joined Deep Space Industries as chief scientist. Now that DSI appears to be out of the asteroid mining business, I assume Lewis is no longer its chief scientist. In his introduction to Mining the Sky, Lewis writes, “The tired old myths of limited resources and finite living space available to humankind cannot be sustained in the face of the discoveries now pouring in daily about our solar system.” He advocates for human expansion into and settlement of the solar system: “there is enough raw material in the asteroids to support a population larger than that of Earth.”

In 1994, a paper by U.S. Geological Survey scientist Jeff Kargel, “Metalliferous asteroids as potential sources of precious metals,” was published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets. Kargel wrote:

“Recent discoveries of near‐Earth asteroids (NEAs) and chemical analyses of fragments of asteroids (meteorites) suggest that there may be a gold mine, literally, in near‐Earth space. Judged from meteorite analyses, two types of asteroids offer particularly bright prospects for recovery of large quantities of precious metals (defined as Au, Pt, Ir, Os, Pd, Rh, and Ru), the ordinary LL chondrites, which contain 1.2–5.3% Fe‐Ni metal containing 50–220 ppm of precious metals, and metallic asteroids, which consist almost wholly of Fe‐Ni phases and contain variable amounts of precious metals up to several hundred ppm. The pulverized regolith of LL chondrite asteroids could be electromagnetically raked to separate the metallic grains. Suitable metallic asteroids could be processed in their entirety. Statistically, there should be approximately six metallic NEAs larger than 1 km in diameter that contain over 100 ppm of precious metals. Successful recovery of 400,000 tons or more of precious metals contained in the smallest and least rich of these metallic NEAs could yield products worth $5.1 trillion (US) at recent market prices. If marketed over 20 years, this would represent a 10‐fold increase over the recent global production rate of all precious metals combined. The market response to the hypothetical introduction of such large quantities of precious metals is difficult to predict, because these metals historically have not obeyed normal economic laws of the market. An empirical model suggests that the effects on market prices of a hypothetical increase in production of a given metal can be predicted given existing knowledge of the metal’s present market value and production rate. This model suggests that the total value of 400,000 metric tons of precious metals, if marketed over 20 years, would decline to about $320 billion ($16 billion per year). Except for Au, for which production and prices would be marginally affected, the market prices of precious metals may decline by 1 to 2 orders of magnitude if one of the six asteroids were to be mined to depletion over 20 years. Less conservatively, there is a 50% chance that the richest metallic NEA contains at least 1.9 million metric tons of precious metals; this quantity, if marketed over 40 years, may be worth approximately $900 billion at collapsed market prices ($22.5 billion per year). The actual economic and technological impact of asteroidal metals may be considerably greater due to the increased availability and reduced prices of these resources. Despite this great potential, first‐order technological, scientific, and economic uncertainties remain before the feasibility of exploitation of asteroids for precious metals can be ascertained.”

I find Lewis’s and Kargel’s projections wildly optimistic, at best. And, again, these projections do not take into account the expense of establishing mining operations in space (or moving asteroids into near-Earth space).

And then there’s Ian Webster’s, a web site providing estimates of the market value of asteroid resources that was purchased by Planetary Resources in 2013. (I’m not sure who owns these days, as Planetary Resources has gone out of business — see below.) Webster says on Asterank:

“Scientists know very little about the composition of asteroids. Most data used in our calculations come from the JPL’s Small Body Database and the Minor Planet Center. The overwhelming majority of asteroids have no spectral classification and are missing other important data attributes. Without full information it is impossible to fully estimate the true value of an asteroid or the cost of mining it.” As to asteroid resource valuations, “Asterank applies accurate, up-to-date information from world markets and scientific papers. To ensure realistic estimates, data from meteorites on Earth and known reference asteroids heavily influence our calculations…. Value estimates are based on the mass of a given asteroid and its spectral type. Asteroid spectra is used to infer composition, which, in conjunction with current market prices, determine potential value.”

(Ian Webster is lead engineer for Zenysis, “an interoperability platform built to accelerate global development goals, and improve lives everywhere.” Whatever that means.)

To reiterate, most of my colleagues in the small-bodies research community agree that we don’t know enough about asteroids to determine whether any are so rich in valuable mineral resources to justify plans to mine them. While many wild claims have been made about “trillion-dollar” asteroids – often in the media, and sometimes by otherwise reputable scientists, they are just that: claims, not facts.

Finally, in last week’s post I mentioned that a blockchain venture production studio called ConsenSys, Inc., had acquired Planetary Resources last year (Planetary Resources being one of the two companies that popped up in 2012 claiming to be in the asteroid mining business). And I had said in that post that I did not know what a blockchain production studio is or what it has to do with space.  On February 1, Alan Boyle explained on Geekwire “how satellites and blockchain go together.” It still has nothing to do with asteroid mining, as far as I can tell. For me, the Geekwire report shed some very dim light on the subject, but you can read the report if you’re interested.

I also reported last week that the only company I could identify via Google named iSpace – a company named in the above-mentioned dubious asteroid market assessment as playing a role in the asteroid mining business – was “a global services company focused on Information Technology Services, Business Process Services, Location Based Services and Healthcare Solutions.” Well, it turns out that there’s another iSpace – actually, it’s  ispace-inc. – a Luxembourg-based company that claims, “By taking advantage of lunar water resources, we can develop the space infrastructure needed to enrich our daily lives on earth—as well as expand our living sphere into space.” (I’m not investing.)



Asteroid mining? Really?



An outfit out of Portland, Oregon, called Allied Market Research (AMR) is touting (for sale) an “Asteroid Mining Market Report” that sounds mighty iffy to me.

The whole asteroid-mining thing seems iffy to me, but more on that later.

To start, AMR claims the global asteroid mining market will reach $3.8 trillion by 2025. That’s ridiculous. First, no one knows enough about the composition of any known asteroid to reasonably estimate the value of its mineral resources. (See below.) Second, no one yet has the technical means to establish an asteroid mining operation in space. (According to an MIT study group, opening a mine and separation plant on Earth can cost from $500 million to $1 billion, depending on the location, element, ore grade, and a variety of other factors.) It’s 2019. I do not believe that anyone, anywhere on Earth, has the technical and financial resources on hand to establish such an operation over the next six years.

According to AMR, “Innumerable space missions planned by government and private players, surge in R&D investments by market players to deploy space mining processes, and use of asteroid-derived print materials in 3D printing technology drive the growth of the global asteroid mining market.” This statement also is ridiculous. No government or private party is planning an asteroid mining mission – not even an asteroid prospecting mission. Planetary Resources wanted to engage in asteroid prospecting but could not raise the financing to do it.

As to a surge in investments to develop space mining processes – well, I’m not going to buy this report, but I suspect the “surge” is rather small, in dollar terms. As to the use of asteroid-derived materials in 3D printing – we have no asteroid-derived materials on Earth right now, beyond a tiny sample of the asteroid 25143 Itokawa returned to Earth by Japan’s Hayabusa mission.

I mean tiny. According to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, the returned sample consisted of 1500 grains, 10 micrometers or smaller in size, containing the minerals olivine, pyroxene, plagioclase and iron sulfide. No titanium, platinum, or diamonds here.

Yes, institutions around the world house meteorite collections – meteorites being fragments of asteroids that make it to the surface of Earth – but my understanding is that these meteorites are being studied to gain insight into the origin and evolution of the solar system, not to determine how businesses can get rich in space.

Anyway, back to AMR. It is an arm of Allied Analytics LLP. The latter apparently has offices in Portland, Oregon; Hong Kong; and Pune, India. I have been unable to find a web site for Allied Analytics LLP – only press releases it has issued, posted on a web site called Open PR.

And again, let’s get back to the AMR market report. AMR says “the key market players analyzed in the report include Asteroid Mining Company, Bradford, iSpace, Kleos Space S.A., Planetary Resources, SpaceFab.US, Sierra Nevada Corporation, Offworld, and Virgin Galactic.”

The two asteroid-mining companies that popped up in 2012, after President Obama told NASA to develop what became the (now-defunct) Asteroid Initiative, were Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources. Both apparently were financially unsustainable as asteroid-mining companies. Both were acquired by other companies in 2018 (see below).

I have never heard of a company called Asteroid Mining Company. (Anybody else?) “Bradford” must be Bradford Space– a company that makespropulsion systems, space station facilities, attitude control systems, and technologies for deep-space missions (no mention of mining technology on its web site). Bradford bought Deep Space Industries (DSI) last year.  Preceding the acquisition by Bradford, DSI appeared to have backed out of the business of asteroid mining and gone into the business of developing propulsion technologies. DSI now serves as an outlet for Bradford’s business activities in the U.S. space market.

Last year, blockchain venture production studio ConsenSys, Inc., acquired Planetary Resources. ConsenSys said it plans to “operate its space initiatives” – whatever they might be – out of Planetary Resources’ former headquarters in Redmond, Washington.  (Do not ask me what a blockchain venture production studio is or does, or what it has to do with space.)

iSpace is “a global services company focused on Information Technology Services, Business Process Services, Location Based Services and Healthcare Solutions.” (??) Kleos Space appears to be in the low-Earth-orbit nanosatellite business. Spacefab says its focus “is to create a space manufacturing service that will allow everyone, from governments to individuals, to affordably build their own space projects.” Offworld, based in California and Luxembourg, claims it is “developing a new generation of universal industrial robots to do the heavy lifting on Earth, Moon, asteroids and Mars.” You can check Sierra Nevada’s web site to see what that company does (asteroid mining is not mentioned). Last I knew, Virgin Galactic was strictly in the business of (planning for) taking tourists on suborbital flights.  For years now, Richard Branson has been saying that Virgin Galactic flights are imminent.  I take all the rhetoric on the company’s web site – “democratizing space” and “opening space to change the world for good” – with several grains of salt.

As to the value of asteroid resources, my colleagues who study asteroids keep telling me that no one knows enough about the mineral composition of any given asteroid to come up with a reliable estimate of its market value. And that’s aside from the cost of standing up a mining operation in space and returning resources to Earth (one rationale provided for asteroid mining is that we are running out of resources here on Earth).

At a meeting in Houston, Texas, today, members of the NASA Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG) discussed whether SBAG should identify a “goal” relating to asteroid resource utilization. Discussion addressed what science is needed to enable resource utilization, the need to define measurements and analyses that are required to identify a resource-rich asteroid, and the need to define resources of interest from asteroids. “We are well behind where we need to be” in assessing NEO resources, one scientist said at the meeting. Sounds to me like we’re still at square one when it comes to assessing the nature and value of asteroid resources.

Nonetheless, wild claims about asteroid resource values persist. Mashable reported on April 26, 2012, that an asteroid named Amun is worth $20 trillion. According to the story, Amun contains $8 trillion worth of platinum, $8 trillion in iron and nickel, and $6 trillion in cobalt. The source? A 1996 book by planetary scientist John Lewis, Mining the Sky: Untold Riches from the Asteroids, Comets, and Planets. Again, my colleagues who study asteroids keep telling me that no one knows enough about the composition of any given asteroid to produce reliable estimates of resource values. So let’s just say that Dr. Lewis’s projections are optimistic speculations not based on scientific evidence. (I will blog again later about the sources of these wild-eyed value estimates.)

On January 14, 2017, Global News Canada reported that an asteroid named 16 Psyche is worth $10,000 quadrillion. This information was attributed to Lindy Elkins-Tanton, principal investigator for a NASA mission in development called Psyche, which will visit 16 Psyche. This asteroid was chosen as the target for this mission because it appears to be the exposed nickel-iron core of an early planet. Science goals and objectives for the mission make no mention of resource prospecting.

One last thing. On January 23, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and the Kingdom of Belgium signed an agreement to “to collaborate on the development of an international framework for the exploration and utilization of space resources.” Seems premature to me. Luxembourg claims it aims “to contribute to the peaceful exploration and sustainable utilization of space resources for the benefit of mankind.”

When Planetary Resources first came on the scene, it claimed it aimed to mine asteroids for the benefit of “mankind.” The history of mining on Earth shows that – while, yes, people buy the products that are made from the mined resources – mining operations are conducted for the benefit of company profits, first and foremost.


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.