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In the world of space exploration, the international community is extremely concerned with avoiding contamination of extraterrestrial bodies with life from Earth. NASA has a very robust and stringent planetary protection protocol. But now that private companies are joining the space exploration scene, how are they going to handle planetary protection? As private companies, do they fall under the jurisdiction of the United Nations Outer Space Treaty? Is there any way the international community could prosecute them for contaminating another world?

The only source I could find was a statement from the senior director of communications saying "SpaceX takes planetary protection very seriously", but this yields almost no useful information. How is SpaceX going to prevent cross-contamination? I am not too interested in the technical details of how to sterilize a spacecraft, but I am curious about the broad strokes. Does SpaceX have a team looking into this? Do they have a plan put together?

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    $\begingroup$ @LocalFluff The discussion is on topic, but please try to talk about it in a civil manner. I'm moving it to chat and cleaning up the comments. $\endgroup$ – called2voyage Jul 22 '16 at 13:07
  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – called2voyage Jul 22 '16 at 13:07
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NASA has a protocol for this, and SpaceX will follow it. As 1337Joe notes, the Outer Space Treaty applies:

Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty: "the activities of non-governmental entities in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall require authorization and continuing supervision by the appropriate State Party to the Treaty". I don't know that they have something in place, but by treaty they have the responsibility to supervise operations.

Things to consider are forward contamination (bring stuff to Mars) and backwards contamination, (bring stuff back to Earth).

In terms of forward, that ship is gonna sail pretty early. Sure a probe can be sterilized, kept under a fairing during launch, heated during reentry but once we get to the point of people going to Mars that concern is basically over. SpaceX's goal is to get humans to Mars, so the only relevance of forward contamination will be in their first few unmanned missions.

The same is actually true for reverse contamination once someone comes home. Sure a sample return mission could follow protocol and do all the

In many ways it is a moot point overall in the world of SpaceX except for maybe the first mission or two.

We know they plan a Red Dragon mission in 2018. This will be a Dragon capsule. The contents and interior can easily be sterilized as needed. The exterior is harder, since a Dragon launches with no fairing, so no way to sterilize the outside and then protect it until launch. However, ascent is NOT a fun environment for microbes, and the descent into Mars via retro-propulsion is pretty tough to survive as well. That may not be sufficient for NASA so they may have to take additional steps.

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  • $\begingroup$ Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty: "the activities of non-governmental entities in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall require authorization and continuing supervision by the appropriate State Party to the Treaty". I don't know that they have something in place, but by treaty they have the responsibility to supervise operations. $\endgroup$ – 1337joe Jul 22 '16 at 15:42
  • $\begingroup$ @1337joe -- By treaty, it's the US government that has to authorize SpaceX's activities and supervise the operations in an ongoing sense. $\endgroup$ – David Hammen Jul 22 '16 at 17:04
  • $\begingroup$ Bits and pieces of Mars have already contaminated Earth. Possibly even biological materials have made it from Mars to Earth. And conversely, bits of dust carrying germs could have been blown off of the Earth's atmosphere and made its way to Mars. While an effort has been made to insure that all probes going to Mars were sterile, there really is no such thing as 100% sterile. A few germs have made it to Mars, fat lot of good it will do them. Once people begin to set foot on Mars, sterilization will probably go out the window. $\endgroup$ – Howard Miller Jul 22 '16 at 20:23
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As private companies, do they fall under the jurisdiction of the United Nations Outer Space Treaty?

All of the leading private space companies are incorporated in the U.S. (e.g., SpaceX, Orbital ATK, Sierra Nevada, Blue Origin, ...). They are subject to state and national law, and also to any international treaties to which the U.S. are party. So yes, these companies fall under the jurisdiction of the Outer Space Treaty.

None of these companies want to reincorporate outside the U.S.; doing so would risk their contracts with NASA and the DoD, risk their ability to access classified and sensitive but unclassified information, and risk having their intellectual property confiscated on the basis that it is based on U.S. classified / sensitive but unclassified information.

Right now, there's no risk of this happenning; those companies need access to U.S. launch facilities. The future may be different; there's already a bit of tension in the deliberateness of how the U.S. government operates and the speed at which those private space companies would rather operate.

Is there any way the international community could prosecute them for contaminating another world?

That's new territory. However, companies that have committed crimes against humanity have been broken up and have had key personnel jailed by international tribunals. Companies that violate international treaties in a lesser way are usually dealt with in the country in which they are incorporated or have their headquarters.

The only source I could find was a statement from the senior director of communications saying "SpaceX takes planetary protection very seriously", but this yields almost no useful information.

SpaceX apparently will take planetary protection very seriously for its unmanned missions to Mars (e.g., setting up protocols, ensuring the vehicle is assembled in clean room conditions, performing additional sterilization actions between Earth and Mars). However, SpaceX is very serious about sending humans to Mars. Humans on Mars is game over with respect to planetary protection. How SpaceX and NASA will address this is a problem that is apparently being left to the future.

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  • $\begingroup$ Yes, I understand the sterilization procedures and what planetary protection is all about. My question was more about what exactly SpaceX is planning, especially with a manned mission or sample return. $\endgroup$ – Phiteros Jul 22 '16 at 18:13
  • $\begingroup$ There can be no plan for a manned mission. It's game over. $\endgroup$ – David Hammen Jul 22 '16 at 18:32

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