Eleven months ago MEPAG chartered a Science Analysis Group to update our understandings of Planetary Protection “Special Regions” on Mars. These are places on Mars (in 3-D) where terrestrial organisms are likely to replicate. The last MEPAG SAG to visit this topic (SR-SAG1) was in 2006. For the SR-SAG2, we assigned this challenging job to a relatively large team with a mixture of expertise in Mars environmental conditions and in the limits to life as we know them on Earth. This committee has delivered periodic progress reports in the interim, including a major PPT presentation at our May MEPAG meeting and a presentation to COSPAR in August. I am now pleased to report that the committee has delivered their final report, I have accepted it, and it has been posted on the MEPAG web site at http://mepag.nasa.gov/reports.cfm?expand=topical. The committee additionally proposed that this document be offered to the journal Astrobiology to improve the report’s distribution, visibility, and compactness/readability, and I have endorsed this strategy, now in progress.
This is an important topic that requires clear and concise understanding, as robotic missions planning to have direct contact with Special Regions are given planetary protection categorization (IVc), with stringent sterilization constraints on the portions of the mission contacting such regions. The avoidance of the contamination of Special Regions is also important in the planning for human missions to Mars, and this topic is discussed in the report. Finally, I want to remind everyone that MEPAG’s role in this is to prepare an analysis of the current state of knowledge and related technical issues to be considered by policy-makers (e.g., COSPAR) and not, itself, to set policy.
For members of the community who are involved in mission planning and/or astrobiology I encourage you to take a look at this report, which now can be circulated and referenced as in press, Astrobiology.
– Professor Lisa Pratt, MEPAG Chair