While the Planetary Protection Research portfolio is not part of the Astrobiology Program, it collaborates closely with the Astrobiology Program to both be informed by and to inform astrobiology research.

Planetary Protection is the practice of understanding and limiting terrestrial biological contamination of specific Solar System bodies and stringently protecting Earth from possible life forms that could be returned from specific Solar System bodies considered to be habitable. Numerous areas of research in astrobiology/exobiology are improving our understanding of the potential for survival of Earth microbes in extraterrestrial environments, relevant to preventing contamination of other bodies by Earth organisms carried on spacecraft. As we continue to bring extraterrestrial samples back to the Earth system for advanced research and analysis, there is an urgent need to understand and prevent biological contamination of the terrestrial environment. Mission-enabling and capability-driven research is required to improve NASA’s understanding of the potential for both forward and backward contamination; and improve methods and technologies for accurate, efficient, and effective minimization of biological contamination for outbound spacecraft and return samples. The Planetary Protection Research (PPR) program solicits research in the following areas (in order of programmatic priority):

  • Model or experimentally measure planetary environmental conditions and transport processes that could permit mobilization of spacecraft-associated contaminants to locations in which Earth organisms might thrive. Of particular interest are the subsurface environments of icy bodies, such as Europa and Enceladus, and Mars Special Regions.
  • Develop or adapt modern molecular analytical methods to rapidly detect, classify, and/or enumerate Earth microbes carried by spacecraft (on surfaces and/or in bulk materials, especially at low densities) before, during, and after assembly and launch processing. Of particular interest are methods capable of identifying and verifying the functionality of microbes with high potential for surviving spacecraft flight or planetary environmental conditions (e.g., anaerobes, psychrophiles, radiation resistant organisms), methods that can validate and support biological modeling as it relates to biological contamination of spacecraft, and comparison to current NASA planetary protection standard assay techniques.
  • Model to understand and predict biological and organic contamination sourcing, transport, survival, and burden level of spacecraft, for both forward and backward contamination. Of particular interest are mission-enabling models that support mission designers, project managers, and life-detecting science teams in the early stages of the mission lifecycle.
  • Model or experimentally measure space environmental conditions and spacecraft designs that could permit a decrease in biological contamination of spacecraft during the journey (e.g., bioburden credits) to the target destination with emphasis on reduction of organisms currently surviving under cleanroom conditions. Of particular interest is the radiation environment of deep space and the combined effects of multiple simultaneous stressors, such as a combination of space vacuum and radiation stressors.
  • Identify and provide proof-of-concept on new or improved methods, designs, technologies, techniques, and procedures to support planetary protection requirements for outbound and return sample missions. Of particular interest are improvements to spacecraft cleaning and sterilization that remain compatible with spacecraft materials and assemblies, prevention of re-contamination and cross contamination throughout the spacecraft lifecycle, and expansion of materials and commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware with compatibility to current cleaning and sterilization techniques. This would include work to advance in situ bioburden reduction and appropriate validation methods.
  • Experimentally measure reduction in viability of hardy terrestrial organisms, including viruses, exposed to high temperatures (e.g. 200 to 500 degrees centigrade) for short periods of time (e.g. seconds to minutes). Of particular interest are mission enabling time/temperature experiments with greater than 7 decimal reductions in viability.
  • Characterize the limits of life in laboratory simulations of relevant planetary environments or in appropriate Earth analogs. Of particular interest are studies on the potential and dynamics of organism and bio-molecule survival and reproduction in conditions present on the surface or subsurface of Mars (e.g., gullies and ice-rich environments), or on Europa and other icy satellites – potentially in the presence of a heat source brought from Earth.

Click here to view the ROSES 2022 information.

The Planetary Protection Research Program, located in the Planetary Science Division, collaborates closely with the Office of Planetary Protection to identify research topics relevant to current practices. More information about the Office of Planetary Protection can be found at: https://sma.nasa.gov/sma-disciplines/planetary-protection/