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Dr. Catharine Conley, Monday, 10-8-12 October 9, 2012

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Dr. Catharine Conley, Monday, 10-8-12


Guest: Dr. Catharine Conley. Topics: NASA & international planetary protection policy, methodology, & applications. You are invited to comment, ask questions, & discuss the Space Show program/guest(s) on the Space Show blog, https://thespaceshow.wordpress.com. Comments, questions, & any discussion must be relevant & applicable to Space Show programming. Transcripts of Space Show programs are not permitted without prior written consent from The Space Show (even if for personal use) & are a violation of the Space Show copyright. We welcomed Dr. Catharine Conley, NASA’s Planetary Protection Officer to the show for a comprehensive discussion on the subject of planetary protection. Planetary Protection is concerned with preventing the transfer of life between planetary bodies. For more information, visit the NASA Planetary Protection website at http://planetaryprotection.nasa.gov. Dr. Conley started our discussion with the definition of planetary protection, followed by a brief history dating back to the Apollo missions & planetary quarantine. Dr. Conley talked extensively about microbes & their survival. One of the points she made in response to a question was just how friendly the very cold temperatures of space could be for microbes.  On the other hand, radiation & the UV light are the enemies of microbial survival. We talked about a Mars sample return mission, what safety precautions would be taken, & then our guest was asked about using the ISS or the Moon as a quarantine lab to protect Earth. You will hear why this is not a good idea & later when asked about using a Bigelow habitat as a planetary protection lab since it would not be a government lab, our guest applied the same reasoning. Dr. Conley talked about the Viking missions as the most stringent ever for planetary protection. In terms of the methodology, we talked about how a mission is prepared for planetary protection, the probability of contamination, & I asked about cost-benefit analysis & the value of added costs & more time for planetary protection if the probability of contamination was so low. As you will hear, building in planetary protection starting with the concept stage is not a significant contributor to costs as its usually less than 1% of mission costs. We also talked about protocols for a NEO mission, the New Horizons mission on the way to Pluto, & missions to other planets & flyby missions. Next, our guest addressed issues with Mars Science Lab & Curiosity. Near the end of the first segment, we talked about international protocols, Article 9 of the OST, & the international COSPAR Planetary Protection Policy. Dr. Conley talked about international space agency adherence to the policy, country by country. Viruses & extra-terrestrial life possibilities brought us to the close of this segment.

In our second segment, Dr. Conley talked about the need for public awareness & educational outreach regarding planetary protection. Listeners asked about human flights to Mars, even one way flights.  Don’t miss this discussion. Did you know that it is very likely that humans will be restricted as to where they can go on Mars based on planetary protection policy? Or, by the time we send humans to Mars, we will have learned enough about Mars so that the human part regarding planetary protection will not prove to be much of a threat or risk. We talked about terreforming, what to do with a crew member death on Mars & being able to bury the body, then we talked about planetary protection policy among the NASA centers. Near the end, our guest was asked about the Phobos-Grunt mission & the Russian adherence to planetary protection policies. We inquired about Mars meteorites here on Earth & future missions being worked on with the planetary protection office including two Mars missions & the concept of a Europa mission.

Please post your comments/questions on The Space Show blog. If you want to contact Dr. Conley, send your note to me & I will forward it to her.


1. Joe - October 10, 2012

The reason to protect Mars that is stated on the planetary protection website is that we want to protect Mars from our biological contamination to avoid obscuring our ability in finding existing life there. We also want to preserve our ability to study Mars in its natural state.

This sounds like we want to continue sending germ free robots there forever instead of sending people there to explore the planet for life sustaining resources.

This sounds like the convincing established mindset back before Columbus set foot in America. The people in control wanted to continue sailing up and down the coast to keep their established trade routes going and their pocket books full. This path to follow the money was extremely difficult to change until Christopher Columbus came around.

Christopher Columbus used his mind to come up with the unthinkable idea of sailing west in search of unknown territory that had the potential of far greater return on investment that existing trade routes going north and south. He then persuaded the right people at the right time to advance him the time and money it took to make that dream come true.

I see someone like Elon Musk, an interplanetary visionary, interested in pursuing a manned mission to Mars someday. Taking this next giant leap for mankind can be done with existing technology and navigation methods just like Columbus did back in the 15th century. And no one is going to tell him he can’t go because of the risk of biological contamination on Mars.

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