As the NewSpace industry pushes the boundaries of space exploration, it must prioritize planetary protection to safeguard Earth from potential contamination by extraterrestrial materials. Ambitious plans for in-orbit experiments, cutting-edge platforms, and re-entry vehicles require navigating a complex regulatory landscape to prevent back contamination, and the bringing of hazardous space materials to Earth.
The NewSpace sector has experienced remarkable growth and innovation, driven by private companies venturing into space. These endeavours include ambitious in-orbit experiments, advanced platforms, and re-entry vehicles aimed at advancing space exploration and commercial interests. However, as the sector continues to push boundaries, it must navigate a complex web of international treaties, policies, rules, and regulations to ensure safety while preserving the integrity of experimental outputs brought back to Earth.
Microgravity: A Powerful Tool for Scientific Discovery
Microgravity, the condition of weightlessness, is a unique environment that allows scientists to study biology, human health, materials science, and physics in ways that are not possible on Earth. By studying how organisms react to microgravity, scientists can better understand how they function in the absence of gravity. This research has the potential to lead to new insights into diseases, develop new treatments, and improve our understanding of human physiology.
For example, microgravity research has shown that microgravity can alter the way cells grow and divide, the way tissues develop, and the way organs function. This research has led to new insights into diseases such as osteoporosis, cancer, and muscle atrophy. Microgravity research is also being used to develop new treatments for these diseases, such as new drugs and therapies.
Studying how organisms react to microgravity can help scientists better understand how they function. Microgravity also alters physical processes, such as crystal growth and fluid mixing, which enables the creation of new materials and products with exceptional precision and quality. Additionally, the space station provides a platform with unique conditions, such as greatly reduced non-gravitational sources of noise, access to the vacuum conditions of space, and extreme heat and cold, which enable scientists to conduct physics experiments that are not possible on Earth.
In other words, microgravity helps scientists learn more about life, make better things, and understand the universe in new ways.
The recent denial of re-entry for the Varda Space mission by the FAA highlights the importance of planetary protection measures. The details of the FAA's decision to deny the VARDA space mission's re-entry request are not publicly available. However, based on the FAA's general requirements for sample returns, it is possible to speculate on the safety requirements that the VARDA space mission may have failed to comply with.
One possibility is that the FAA was concerned about the safety of the mission's re-entry vehicle. The VARDA space mission was planning to use a new and untested re-entry vehicle. The FAA may have been concerned that this vehicle was not safe enough to return samples to Earth without posing a risk to the public or the environment.
Another possibility is that the FAA was concerned about the safety of the mission's samples. The VARDA space mission was planning to return samples from space that contained potentially hazardous materials. The FAA may have been concerned that these samples could pose a risk to the public or the environment if they were not properly packaged and transported.
It is also possible that the FAA was concerned about the mission's compliance with all applicable laws and regulations. The VARDA space mission was an international mission, and it is possible that the FAA was concerned that the mission was not in compliance with all the applicable laws and regulations of the countries involved in the mission.
Without knowing the specific details of the FAA's decision, it is impossible to say for sure which safety requirements the VARDA space mission failed to comply with. However, the possibilities outlined above are some of the most likely reasons for the FAA's decision.
In addition to the FAA's requirements, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) also has several policies and procedures governing sample returns. These policies and procedures are designed to ensure that samples are returned in a way that preserves their scientific integrity and complies with all applicable laws and regulations.
These safety requirements for sample returns are designed to protect the public, the environment, and the scientific integrity of the samples. These requirements are complex and can vary depending on the specific mission. However, all sample returns must comply with certain general principles, such as ensuring the safety of the public and the environment, preserving the scientific integrity of the samples, and complying with all applicable laws and regulations.
The foundation of planetary protection lies within international treaties and agreements that address the responsible conduct of space activities:
Outer Space Treaty (OST): The Outer Space Treaty, signed in 1967, is the cornerstone of international space law. While it primarily emphasizes the peaceful use of space, it also contains important provisions related to planetary protection. Article IX of the treaty specifically requires nations and spacefaring entities to avoid harmful contamination of celestial bodies and Earth.
COSPAR Guidelines: The Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) has developed guidelines that provide a comprehensive framework for planetary protection. These guidelines offer detailed recommendations for preventing contamination during missions to various celestial bodies, including Mars, the Moon, and beyond. NewSpace companies must adhere to these guidelines when planning in-orbit experiments and sample return missions.
NewSpace companies planning in-orbit experiments must be meticulous in their approach to planetary protection to prevent any contamination of Earth upon reentry:
Containment and Quarantine: Containment measures are essential to ensure that no potentially hazardous materials escape from in-orbit experiments during their return to Earth. This includes sealed containment units, robust sealing mechanisms, and strict quarantine protocols that meet COSPAR's standards.
Sample Return Protocols: For missions involving the retrieval of samples from celestial bodies, stringent sample return protocols must be established. These protocols should include secure sample containment during transit and rigorous sterilization procedures to prevent any contamination risk upon return.
Data Preservation: To preserve the integrity of experimental data, it is crucial to maintain a separation between the containment systems and the scientific instruments collecting data. This separation prevents data corruption due to potential contamination.
Reentry vehicles carrying payloads or samples from space face unique challenges and must adhere to stringent planetary protection measures:
Containment and Sterilization: The payload containment systems within re-entry vehicles must ensure that no extraterrestrial materials can escape during atmospheric re-entry. Additionally, sterilization procedures should be employed to minimize any biological contamination risk.
Return Capsules: Return capsules, such as those used in sample return missions, must be designed with multiple layers of protection, including secure sealing mechanisms and heat shields to prevent any breach during re-entry.
Secure Landing Zones: Identifying secure landing zones away from populated areas and ensuring safe recovery procedures are crucial. This prevents accidental contamination of the Earth and protects the environment.
The readiness of nations to support NewSpace activities, particularly in terms of quarantine, sterilization, handling, and other critical aspects, varies considerably. While some countries have developed advanced facilities and capabilities, others may need to invest further in infrastructure and expertise.
Advanced Facilities: Countries like the United States and Russia possess advanced facilities for quarantine, sterilization, and handling of spacecraft and payloads. These facilities have been used in historic missions like the Apollo program and continue to support modern space endeavours.
International Collaboration: In some cases, nations may rely on international collaboration to access the necessary facilities. The International Space Station (ISS), for example, provides a unique platform for scientific research and experimentation in a microgravity environment, while international agreements govern access and utilization.
Emerging Space Nations: Emerging space nations may face challenges in establishing the required facilities but can leverage partnerships and collaborations with established spacefaring nations to bridge the gap. This cooperative approach benefits both parties and promotes global scientific advancement.
The rise of NewSpace companies has created new challenges for planetary protection. NewSpace companies are often more agile and innovative than traditional space agencies, but they may not have the same level of experience with planetary protection. As a result, it is important for NewSpace companies to be aware of the planetary protection requirements that apply to their missions and to take steps to comply with these requirements.
Collaboration and Education: To empower New Space actors in the context of planetary protection, collaboration and education are key. Government space agencies, such as NASA or ESA, can work closely with private companies to share knowledge and best practices. This collaboration can involve workshops, training sessions, and the exchange of information on planetary protection requirements and techniques.
Streamlined Regulations: Regulatory bodies must adapt to the changing landscape of space exploration. Instead of overly rigid rules, regulators should consider flexible frameworks that encourage innovation while upholding planetary protection standards. This could involve tiered approaches where missions with a lower risk of contamination face fewer regulatory hurdles.
Research and Development: Investment in research and development is crucial for empowering New Space actors. This includes the development of cutting-edge sterilization technologies and materials that reduce the risk of contamination. Public-private partnerships can accelerate such advancements, benefitting both scientific missions and commercial ventures.
Clear Communication: Clear communication channels between space agencies, scientists, and private companies are essential. Transparent dialogue ensures that all stakeholders understand the importance of planetary protection and are committed to adhering to guidelines. Regular meetings and reporting mechanisms can facilitate this exchange of information.
Incentives for Innovation: Regulators can provide incentives for innovative approaches to planetary protection. This may include recognizing and rewarding companies that develop groundbreaking sterilization methods or contamination-reducing technologies. Incentives drive progress and foster a culture of continuous improvement.
Technology Transfer: Facilitating the transfer of proven planetary protection technologies from government agencies to New Space companies can accelerate innovation. Government-developed solutions can serve as a foundation upon which private companies build, reducing the time and cost of research.
Risk Assessment: A risk-based approach to planetary protection allows companies to tailor their efforts to mission-specific requirements. By conducting thorough risk assessments, New Space actors can focus resources on areas with the highest potential for contamination.
New Space's emergence has ushered in a transformative era in space exploration, with private companies, innovative technologies, and entrepreneurial ventures. This brings a unique opportunity for pioneering missions to celestial bodies. However, these missions must delicately balance scientific discovery and the preservation of planetary environments through robust planetary protection measures. Achieving this balance requires empowering New Space actors and innovating the regulatory framework, with support and guidance from organizations like the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR). As we envision the future of space exploration, empowering New Space actors and fostering innovation within the planetary protection regulatory environment becomes crucial.
 "Planetary Protection and Sample Return Missions" (COSPAR Reference Document) - https://cosparhq.cnes.fr/sites/default/files/cospar_ducument_sample_return_and_pp_2020.pdf
 COSPAR's Role in Facilitating Scientific and Technological Collaboration in Space" - https://www.cospar-assembly.org/fileadmin/user_upload/cospar/documents/panels/PPP_2018_Presentations/PPP2018_2._COSPAR_Update.pdf
 "NASA's Contributions to Planetary Protection Technology Development" - https://www.nasa.gov/feature/nasa-s-contributions-to-planetary-protection-technology-development
 Incentives for Innovation in Planetary Protection" - https://www.nasa.gov/feature/incentives-for-innovation-in-planetary-protection
 Risk-Based Approach to Planetary Protection" (COSPAR Planetary Protection Panel Report) - https://cosparhq.cnes.fr/sites/default/files/cospar_ppp_planetary_protection_risk_2021.pdf