The Seti, which stands for “search for extraterrestrial intelligence”, Institute is primarily focused on discovering life elsewhere in the universe. But the new contract asks it to ensure that it is not spread anywhere else – tasking it with avoiding the contamination of Earth or other planets during space missions.
As well as working with Nasa to provide training, develop guidelines, and help promote information to the public about its endeavours, the Seti Institute will “validate [the] biological cleanliness on flight projects” to ensure that any biological contamination from missions to other bodies does not negatively affect Earth.
The contract covers numerous space exploration missions including the Mars 2020 and Europa Clipper missions, and preparations for Nasa’s Mars Sample Return mission.
The Mars missions include plans to fly a helicopter on the Red Planet to prove that powered-flight would be possible on another world.
The Europa Clipper mission, meanwhile, is the attempt to send probes to a moon of Jupiter.
The project is expected to launch sometime this decade, and would aim to understand whether Europa would be able to support biological life.
The moon has a sub-surface ocean and could generate heat from its core, both conditions that would encourage life to flourish.
The contract also covers future human spaceflight under Nasa’s Artemis program, which intends to send the first woman to the moon by 2024, as well as programmes for a lunar outpost.
“As we return to the Moon, look for evidence of past or present life on Mars and continue our missions of exploration and discovery in the solar system, planetary protection becomes an increasingly important component of mission planning and execution,” said Bill Diamond, president and chief executive officer of the Seti Institute, in a statement.
“We are proud to be Nasa’s partner for this mission-critical function, protecting Earth from backward contamination, and helping ensure that the life we may find on other worlds, didn’t come from our own.”
The issue of foreign contaminates is a serious one. Last year, it was reported that a mistake made during the Apollo 11 moon landing could have resulted in lunar germs being transported from the moon back to Earth.
We have also been responsible for contaminating other bodies, bringing life to the Moon when an Israeli spacecraft crashed and spilled tardigrades onto the surface of the satellite.
Tardigrades are microscopic animals which can survive extreme conditions including extreme temperatures, extreme pressures (both high and low), air deprivation, radiation, dehydration, and starvation.
"Implementing effective and consistent planetary protection standards is more important than ever, as we increasingly venture into space, not only on missions governed by space agencies, but with projects run in conjunction with, and even wholly by, the commercial sector," Nasa says.