NASA Report Identifies ‘Knowledge Gaps’ To Limit Interplanetary Contamination During Human Missions

30 November 2016, 10:32 am EST By Livia Rusu Tech Times
Watch unmanned Chinese cargo ship Tianzhou-1 dock with space lab
A NASA report identifies the key issues when it comes to preventing any possible contamination of our planet with extraterrestrial elements or vice versa due to our space missions. The report analyzes 25 knowledge gaps that should be addressed to minimize the risks.   ( Alex Wong | Getty Images )

In an attempt to better understand the mysteries of our solar system, astronauts could bring fragments from deep space when they return to Earth from their missions — pieces of asteroids to fragments of Mars and its moons, as well as any other further destinations. The purpose of NASA's report is to eliminate or limit any possibility of contamination with extraterrestrial matter.

The report investigating this research possibility is called Planetary Protection Knowledge Gaps for Human Extraterrestrial Missions. The report is the end result of a workshop that lasted three days, developed in 2015.

A Report Of Interplanetary Safety

The event gathered international experts in order to analyze the important notes when it comes to preventing biological cross-contamination of Earth due to space missions.

There are two types of contamination that the experts address: forward and backward. The first one is about transporting microbes from our planet into the space and infesting celestial bodies, and the second one concerns contaminating Earth with extraterrestrial microbial life.

"A really interesting development that came to light was all the work done in the biomedical community to investigate the human microbiome and environmental microbiome - what microbes live in people and their environments," noted Catharine Conley, NASA's planetary protection officer.

One of the purposes of the report was to identify knowledge gaps from a wide array of possible factors, from technologies and hardware systems to procedures used in sample collection and the standard decontamination procedures. A number of 25 factors were identified as part of this report.

The Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) hosted the follow-on workshop in October. The entity is part of the International Council on Science, and it comprises national scientific unions.

Preventing Forward And Backward Contamination

There were three main themes that the workshop approached. The first one concerned developing the capacity to monitor microbial communities that are associated with human systems, the second one was to create technologies in order to minimize the contamination release, and the third one was in regard to the environmental processes on Mars and other destinations of the expeditions we are currently engaged in.

"Overall, in addition to identifying key knowledge gaps of importance for development of formal NPRs for planetary protection and human missions, the workshop was useful in gathering experts of diverse disciplines, facilitating collaborative discussions of needs, and enhancing cross-communication about the diverse tasks already underway or ahead," states [pdf] the executive summary of the report.

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