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5 Min Read NASA’s Planetary Protection Team Conducts Vital Research for Deep Space Missions
Cassilly examines fungal growth obtained from a space environmental exposure study, part of the Planetary Protection team’s work to understand the ability of microbes to survive conditions in deep space. Credits: NASA/Charles Beason By Celine Smith
As NASA continues its exploration of the solar system, including future crewed missions to Mars, experts in the agency’s Office of Planetary Protection are developing advanced tactics to prevent NASA expeditions from introducing biological contaminants to other worlds.
At NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, the Planetary Protection team is contributing to this work – pursuing new detection, cleaning, and decontamination methods that will protect alien biospheres, safeguard future planetary science missions, and prevent potentially hazardous microbes from being returned to Earth. The Planetary Protection team is a part of the Space Environmental Effects (SEE) team in Marshall’s Materials and Processes Laboratory.
Chelsi Cassilly, lead of Marshall Space Flight Center’s Planetary Protection Laboratory, researches microbes and their behaviors to preserve the environment of other planetary bodies after future missions. NASA/Charles Beason Planetary Protection microbiologist Chelsi Cassilly said much of Planetary Protection focuses on “bioburden” which is typically considered the number of bacterial endospores (commonly referred to as “spores”) found on and in materials. Such materials can range from paints and coatings on robotic landers to solid propellants in solid rocket motors. NASA currently requires robotic missions to Mars meet strict bioburden limits and is assessing how to apply similar policies to future, crewed missions to the Red Planet.
“It’s impossible to eliminate microbes completely,” Cassily said. “But it’s our job to minimize bioburden, keeping the probability of contamination sufficiently low to protect the extraterrestrial environments we explore.”
Currently, Marshall’s Planetary Protection research supports NASA’s Mars Ascent Vehicle, a key component of the planned Mars Sample Return campaign, and risk-reduction efforts for the Human Landing System program.
Critically, Planetary Protection prevents the introduction of microbes from Earth onto planetary bodies where they might proliferate and subsequently interfere with scientific study of past or current life there. If Earth’s microbes were to contaminate samples collected on Mars or Europa, the scientific findings would be an inaccurate depiction of these environments, potentially precluding the ability to determine if life ever existed there. Preserving the scientific integrity of these missions is of the utmost importance to Cassilly and her team.
Contamination mitigation tactics used in the past also may not work with modern hardware and materials. For the Viking missions to Mars, NASA employed a total spacecraft “heat microbial reduction” (HMR) process, a prolonged exposure to high temperatures to kill off or minimize microbes. As spacecrafts advance, NASA is more discerning, using HMR for components and/or subassemblies instead of the entire spacecraft.
According to Cassilly, HMR may not always be an ideal solution because, extended time at high temperatures required to kill microbes can degrade the integrity of certain materials, potentially impacting mission success. While this is not a problem for all materials, there is still a need to expand NASA’s repertoire of acceptable microbial reduction techniques to include ones that may be more efficient and sustainable.
This mold from the genus Cladosporium was collected from the surface of a cleanroom table at Marshall. This and other microbes within cleanrooms pose the biggest threat to spacecraft cleanliness and meeting Planetary Protection requirements. Jacobs Engineering/Chelsi Cassilly To contribute to NASA’s Planetary Protection efforts, Cassilly undertook a project – funded by a Jacobs Innovation Grant – to build a microbial library that could better inform and guide mitigation research. That meant visiting cleanrooms at Marshall to collect prevalent microbes, extracting DNA, amplifying specific genes, and submitting them for commercial sequencing. They identified 95% of the microbes within their library which is continually growing as more microbes are collected and identified.
The Planetary Protection team is interested in taking this work a step further by exposing their microbial library to space-like stressors—including ultraviolet light, ionizing radiation, temperature extremes, desiccation, and vacuum—to determine survivability.
Understanding the response of these microbes to space environmental conditions, like those experienced during deep space transit, helps inform our understanding of contamination risks associated with proposed planetary missions.
Planetary Protection microbiologist
“The research we’re doing probes at the possibility of using space itself to our advantage,” Cassilly said.
Cassilly and Marshall materials engineers also supported a study at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama, to determine whether certain manufacturing processes effectively reduce bioburden. Funded by a NASA Research Opportunity in Space and Earth Sciences (ROSES) grant, the project assessed the antimicrobial activity of various additives and components used in solid rocket motor production. The team is currently revising a manuscript which should appear publicly in the coming months.
This Bacillus isolate with striking morphology was collected from a sample of insulation commonly used in solid rocket motors. Cassilly studies these and other material-associated microbes to evaluate what could hitch a ride on spacecraft. Jacobs Engineering/Chelsi Cassilly Cassilly also supported research by Marshall’s Solid Propulsion and Pyrotechnic Devices Branch to assess estimates of microbial contamination associated with a variety of commonly used nonmetallic spacecraft materials. The results showed that nearly all the materials analyzed carry a lower microbial load than previously estimated – possibly decreasing the risk associated with sending these materials to sensitive locations.
Such findings benefit researchers across NASA who are also pursuing novel bioburden reduction tactics, Cassilly said, improving agencywide standards for identifying, measuring, and studying advanced planetary protection techniques.
“Collaboration unifies our efforts and makes it so much more possible to uncover new solutions than if we were all working individually,” she said.
NASA’s Office of Planetary Protection is part of the agency’s Office of Safety and Mission Assurance at NASA Headquarters in Washington. The Office of Planetary Protection oversees bioburden reduction research and development of advanced strategies for contamination mitigation at Marshall Space Flight Center; NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California; NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland; and NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
For more information about NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, visit:
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Further embracing the New Space era, ESA is to develop two new Scout satellites: NanoMagSat and Tango. NanoMagSat will measure Earth’s magnetic field to help assess space weather hazards and continue on from ESA’s current Swarm mission. Tango will measure greenhouse-gas emissions from human activity and complements the upcoming Copernicus Carbon Dioxide Monitoring mission and the Sentinel-5 mission, as well as the current Sentinel-5P mission.
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The CHAPEA mission 1 crew (from left: Nathan Jones, Ross Brockwell, Kelly Haston, Anca Selariu) exit a prototype of a pressurized rover and make their way to the CHAPEA facility ahead of their entry into the habitat on June 25, 2023. Credit: NASA/Josh Valcarcel NASA is seeking applicants to participate in its next simulated one-year Mars surface mission to help inform the agency’s plans for human exploration of the Red Planet. The second of three planned ground-based missions called CHAPEA (Crew Health and Performance Exploration Analog) is scheduled to kick off in spring 2025.
Each CHAPEA mission involves a four-person volunteer crew living and working inside a 1,700-square-foot, 3D-printed habitat based at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. The habitat, called the Mars Dune Alpha, simulates the challenges of a mission on Mars, including resource limitations, equipment failures, communication delays, and other environmental stressors. Crew tasks include simulated spacewalks, robotic operations, habitat maintenance, exercise, and crop growth.
NASA is looking for healthy, motivated U.S. citizens or permanent residents who are non-smokers, 30-55 years old, and proficient in English for effective communication between crewmates and mission control. Applicants should have a strong desire for unique, rewarding adventures and interest in contributing to NASA’s work to prepare for the first human journey to Mars.
The deadline for applicants is Tuesday, April 2.
Crew selection will follow additional standard NASA criteria for astronaut candidate applicants. A master’s degree in a STEM field such as engineering, mathematics, or biological, physical or computer science from an accredited institution with at least two years of professional STEM experience or a minimum of one thousand hours piloting an aircraft is required. Candidates who have completed two years of work toward a doctoral program in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, completed a medical degree, or a test pilot program will also be considered. With four years of professional experience, applicants who have completed military officer training or a bachelor of science degree in a STEM field may be considered.
Compensation for participating in the mission is available. More information will be provided during the candidate screening process.
As NASA works to establish a long-term presence for scientific discovery and exploration on the Moon through the Artemis campaign, CHAPEA missions provide important scientific data to validate systems and develop solutions for future missions to the Red Planet. With the first CHAPEA crew more than halfway through their yearlong mission, NASA is using research gained through the simulated missions to help inform crew health and performance support during Mars expeditions.
Under NASA’s Artemis campaign, the agency will establish the foundation for long-term scientific exploration at the Moon, land the first woman, first person of color, and its first international partner astronaut on the lunar surface, and prepare for human expeditions to Mars for the benefit of all.
For more about CHAPEA, visit:
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NASA is using a simple but effective technology called Laser Retroreflective Arrays (LRAs) to determine the locations of lunar landers more accurately. They will be attached to most of the landers from United States companies as part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Service (CLPS) initiative. LRAs are inexpensive, small, and lightweight, allowing future lunar orbiters or landers to locate them on the Moon.
NASA is using a simple but effective technology called Laser Retroreflective Arrays (LRAs) to determine the locations of lunar landers more accurately. They will be attached to landers sent to the Moon as part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Service (CLPS) initiative. LRAs are inexpensive, small, and lightweight.
Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Scientific Visualization Studio James Tralie (ADNET Systems, Inc.). Lead Producer Xiaoli Sun (NASA/GSFC): Scientist
This video can be freely shared and downloaded at https://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/14517. These devices consist of a small aluminum hemisphere, 2 inches (5 centimeters) in diameter and 0.7 ounces (20 grams) in weight, inset with eight 0.5-inch-diameter (1.27-centimeter) corner cube retroreflectors made of fused silica glass. LRAs are targeted for inclusion on most of the upcoming CLPS deliveries headed to the lunar surface.
This photograph shows a mockup laser retroreflector array (LRA) at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland, demonstrating the basic design: a metallic semi-hemispheric disc, with eight silica glass cubes embedded in its surface.NASA/Goddard LRAs are designed to reflect laser light shone on them from a large range of angles. Dr. Daniel Cremons of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, deputy principal investigator for the LRA project, describes this as being similar to the reflective strips featured on road signs to aid in nighttime driving here on Earth. “Unlike a mirror where it has to be pointed exactly back at you, you can come in at a wide variety of angles and the light will head directly back to the source,” he said.
By shining a laser beam from one spacecraft toward the retroreflectors on another and measuring how long it takes for the light to get back to its source, scientists can determine the distance between them.
“We have been putting these on satellites and ranging to them from ground-based lasers for years,” said Dr. Xiaoli Sun, also of NASA Goddard and principal investigator for the LRA project. “Then, twenty years ago, someone got the idea to put them on the landers. Then you can range to those landers from orbit and know where they are on the surface.”
This photograph shows the Laser Ranging Facility at the Geophysical and Astronomical Observatory at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland, shining ranging lasers at NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft.NASA
It is important to know the location of landers on the surface of another planetary body and these LRAs act as markers that work with orbiting satellites to establish a navigation aid like the global positioning system (GPS) we take for granted here on Earth.
Laser ranging is also used for docking spacecraft, like the cargo spacecraft that are used for the International Space Station, pointed out Cremons. The LRAs light up when you shine light on them which helps to guide precision docking. They can also be detected by lidars on spacecraft from far away to determine their range and approach speed down to very tight accuracy ratings, and free from the need for illumination from the Sun, which allows docking to happen at nighttime. He adds that the reflectors could allow spacecraft to accurately range-find their way to a landing pad, even without the aid of external light to guide the approach. This means that LRAs can eventually be used to help spacecraft land in otherwise pitch-dark places close to permanently shadowed regions near the lunar South Pole, which are prime target areas for crewed missions because of the resources that might exist there, such as water ice.
Since LRAs are small and made of simple materials, they can fly on scientific missions as a beneficial but low-risk add-on. “By itself, it’s completely passive,” said Cremons. “LRAs will survive the harsh lunar environment and continue to be usable on the surface for decades. Additionally, besides navigating and finding out where your landers are, you can also use laser ranging to tell where your orbiter is around the Moon.”
This means that, as more landers, rovers, and orbiters are sent to the Moon bearing one or more LRAs, our ability to accurately gauge the location of each will only improve. As such, as we deploy more LRAs to the lunar surface, this growing network will allow scientists to gauge the location of key landers and other points of interest more and more accurately, allowing for bigger, better science to be accomplished.
NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) is currently the only NASA spacecraft orbiting the Moon with laser-ranging capability. LRO has already succeeded in ranging to the LRA on the Indian Space Research Organization’s Vikram lander on the lunar surface and will continue range to LRAs on future landers.
Under Artemis, CLPS deliveries will perform science experiments, test technologies, and demonstrate capabilities to help NASA explore the Moon and prepare for human missions. With Artemis missions, NASA will land the first woman and first person of color on the Moon, using innovative technologies to explore more of the lunar surface than ever before. The agency will collaborate with commercial and international partners and establish the first long-term presence on the Moon. Then, NASA will use what we learn on and around the Moon to take the next giant leap: sending the first astronauts to Mars.
By Nick Oakes
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
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