NASA’s Planetary Protection Team Conducts Vital Research for Deep Space Missions

By Celine Smith

As NASA continues its exploration of the photo voltaic system, together with future crewed missions to Mars, consultants within the company’s Workplace of Planetary Safety are creating superior techniques to stop NASA expeditions from introducing organic contaminants to different worlds.

At NASA’s Marshall House Flight Heart in Huntsville, Alabama, the Planetary Safety staff is contributing to this work – pursuing new detection, cleansing, and decontamination strategies that may defend alien biospheres, safeguard future planetary science missions, and forestall doubtlessly hazardous microbes from being returned to Earth. The Planetary Safety staff is part of the House Environmental Results (SEE) staff in Marshall’s Supplies and Processes Laboratory.

Planetary Safety microbiologist Chelsi Cassilly stated a lot of Planetary Safety focuses on “bioburden” which is usually thought-about the variety of bacterial endospores (generally known as “spores”) discovered on and in supplies. Such supplies can vary from paints and coatings on robotic landers to strong propellants in strong rocket motors. NASA at the moment requires robotic missions to Mars meet strict bioburden limits and is assessing learn how to apply comparable insurance policies to future, crewed missions to the Crimson Planet.

“It’s not possible to remove microbes utterly,” Cassily stated. “Nevertheless it’s our job to attenuate bioburden, holding the likelihood of contamination sufficiently low to guard the extraterrestrial environments we discover.”

Presently, Marshall’s Planetary Safety analysis helps NASA’s Mars Ascent Automobile, a key element of the deliberate Mars Pattern Return marketing campaign, and risk-reduction efforts for the Human Touchdown System program.

Critically, Planetary Safety prevents the introduction of microbes from Earth onto planetary our bodies the place they could proliferate and subsequently intervene with scientific research of previous or present life there. If Earth’s microbes have been to infect samples collected on Mars or Europa, the scientific findings could be an inaccurate depiction of those environments, doubtlessly precluding the power to find out if life ever existed there. Preserving the scientific integrity of those missions is of the utmost significance to Cassilly and her staff.

Contamination mitigation techniques used previously additionally might not work with trendy {hardware} and supplies. For the Viking missions to Mars, NASA employed a complete spacecraft “warmth microbial discount” (HMR) course of, a protracted publicity to excessive temperatures to kill off or reduce microbes. As spacecrafts advance, NASA is extra discerning, utilizing HMR for elements and/or subassemblies as a substitute of all the spacecraft.

In accordance with Cassilly, HMR might not all the time be a really perfect resolution as a result of, prolonged time at excessive temperatures required to kill microbes can degrade the integrity of sure supplies, doubtlessly impacting mission success. Whereas this isn’t an issue for all supplies, there’s nonetheless a have to broaden NASA’s repertoire of acceptable microbial discount methods to incorporate ones that could be extra environment friendly and sustainable.

To contribute to NASA’s Planetary Safety efforts, Cassilly undertook a venture – funded by a Jacobs Innovation Grant – to construct a microbial library that would higher inform and information mitigation analysis. That meant visiting cleanrooms at Marshall to gather prevalent microbes, extracting DNA, amplifying particular genes, and submitting them for industrial sequencing. They recognized 95% of the microbes inside their library which is regularly rising as extra microbes are collected and recognized.

The Planetary Safety staff is enthusiastic about taking this work a step additional by exposing their microbial library to space-like stressors—together with ultraviolet mild, ionizing radiation, temperature extremes, desiccation, and vacuum—to find out survivability.

Chelsi Cassilly

Chelsi Cassilly

Planetary Safety microbiologist

“The analysis we’re doing probes at the potential of utilizing area itself to our benefit,” Cassilly stated.

Cassilly and Marshall supplies engineers additionally supported a research at Auburn College in Auburn, Alabama, to find out whether or not sure manufacturing processes successfully cut back bioburden. Funded by a NASA Analysis Alternative in House and Earth Sciences (ROSES) grant, the venture assessed the antimicrobial exercise of varied components and elements utilized in strong rocket motor manufacturing. The staff is at the moment revising a manuscript which ought to seem publicly within the coming months.

Cassilly additionally supported analysis by Marshall’s Strong Propulsion and Pyrotechnic Gadgets Department to evaluate estimates of microbial contamination related to a wide range of generally used nonmetallic spacecraft supplies. The outcomes confirmed that just about all of the supplies analyzed carry a decrease microbial load than beforehand estimated – presumably reducing the chance related to sending these supplies to delicate places.

Such findings profit researchers throughout NASA who’re additionally pursuing novel bioburden discount techniques, Cassilly stated, enhancing agencywide requirements for figuring out, measuring, and finding out superior planetary safety methods.

“Collaboration unifies our efforts and makes it a lot extra potential to uncover new options than if we have been all working individually,” she stated.

NASA’s Workplace of Planetary Safety is a part of the company’s Workplace of Security and Mission Assurance at NASA Headquarters in Washington. The Workplace of Planetary Safety oversees bioburden discount analysis and growth of superior methods for contamination mitigation at Marshall House Flight Heart; NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California; NASA’s Goddard House Flight Heart in Greenbelt, Maryland; and NASA’s Johnson House Heart in Houston.

For extra details about NASA’s Marshall House Flight Heart, go to:


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