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A scenario occurred to me recently where the Chinese space program decided to go all-in on Mars sample return, and their schedule was such that it would happen before the NASA/ESA mission was scheduled to return a sample in 2032 (that hopefully won't crash land and disperse into the environment).

Suppose an impulsive billionaire decided step in and step around the government bureaucracy associated with planning, approving and funding NASA missions and just go get some soil and bring it back ASAP in order to prevent China's being the first country to return a Mars sample.

Would that billionaire need explicit permission from the US government to bring Martian soil samples to Earth, or could they pretty much just do this by only complying with regulations associated with launches and landings and communications?

Would it matter if the recovery was on a ship built elsewhere and driven to international waters for recovery?

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    $\begingroup$ iirc, NASA does not have the authority to globally regulate extra-planetary material, however, they may make it a condition to their cooperation. For example, NASA says "we'll help you" and provides DSN, lauchpads, etc but then they require that Martian material is handled in some specific way. $\endgroup$
    – Dragongeek
    Aug 1 '20 at 10:32
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    $\begingroup$ As there isn't a real answer yet I'll mention that, as I fuzzily recall, international law says that no nation can claim space resources, like a plot on the moon or Mars. But recent US law says specifically that if private interests can develop natural resources in space then they have rights to them. International law is less certain on that point, but if it comes to it, you can sort of figure how it will work out. That is, for instance, for mining and exploitation. Laws are pretty much universally more indulgent for research. $\endgroup$
    – Greg
    Aug 1 '20 at 20:03
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    $\begingroup$ What about from a planetary protection standpoint, where the planets that need protection are both Mars and Earth? If someone wanted to bring soil from Mars and land it in the US, would they require a customs inspection? Are there any regulations that say they have to get approval for their technique to keep it safely isolated from our biological environment? $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Aug 2 '20 at 2:21
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    $\begingroup$ @Uhoh and all others who have responded to the original question. Going further, should there not be (or is there already?) "unanimous agreement" among all the nations, on the decision to bring extra terrestrial material back on earth? What if such material brings with it, any infectious virus etc? No matter what efforts we make to quarantine it (in our perception), we do not know the duration of quarantine, & means to kill the virus etc. Things remain "unknown" till we pay for the consequences. Otherwise an interesting adventure will turn into a misadventure. Luckily "Moon" was harmless. $\endgroup$
    – Niranjan
    Sep 7 '20 at 13:35
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Yes, and you've answered the question in your question! As you note, the FAA regulates launch and reentry for US-based operations. As part of this regulation, the FAA sends around applications to the U.S. Government interagency for comment before approval. One of the questions they ask is whether there are any planetary protection issues with the proposal. Here, the issue would be "backwards" planetary protection, ie theoretical contamination of Earth's biosphere. I doubt any US government agency would object to a SpaceX sample return, provided that they weren't doing anything overtly dangerous, but there would at least be permission required, and it would be done through the reentry authorization handled by the FAA.

Details on backwards planetary protection standards: COSPAR is an international organization of scientists that, among other things, develops technical standards to prevent both forward and backward contamination. See one set of standards here. Members of NASA's SMD participate in COSPAR, and NASA bases their own internal protection standards on those recommended by COSPAR, with some modifications. So here's how planetary protection concerns are addressed, either forward or backward, in detail: the entity (here, SpaceX) seeking the license requests an authorization from the FAA. As part of that application, they include info on planetary protection issues that might be relevant. FAA circulates that application to relevant US Government agencies, who then comment. NASA planetary protection experts look at the data and provide their input as to whether the measures proposed follow, or are equivalently protective, as those NASA itself would follow (which are based on COSPAR recs as I say above). The Department of State says whether or not these measures meet the baseline legal requirements set out in the Outer Space Treaty. FAA then decides whether or not to issue the license, or they could require changes, etc.

As part of the interagency review, the U.S. Government (mostly the State Department for these questions) would also examine whether there are any other foreign policy or international law concerns. As some comments have noted, the U.S. position is that space resource utilization is permissible under the Outer Space Treaty, so there shouldn't be concerns with sample return in that sense. Planetary protection concerns are part of this inquiry, as described above already.

(PS other authorizations, such as for communications via the FCC, and remote sensing via NOAA, would also look at similar issues, but here those inquiries would likely just focus on the FAA reentry licensing.)

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