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Planetary science

Private-sector space activities require government regulation, says US report

04 Jul 2018
While private space firms are making remarkable progress, their efforts need regulating to avoid possibly contaminating other planetary bodies
Beyond Earth: while private space firms are making remarkable progress, their efforts need regulating to avoid possibly contaminating other planetary bodies. (Courtesy:iStock/guvendemir)

The US Congress must introduce legislation to regulate the activities of private companies operating in space. That is according to a new report by the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, which says the need for reform has been heightened by the “burgeoning” commercial space sector in the US.

One leader in the booming US private space sector is Space X, which was founded by Tesla head Elon Musk in 2002. The firm, which has had a number of recent high-profile rocket launches, is setting its sights on missions to Mars. Even Jeff Bezos, who founded the online shopping giant Amazon, is getting in on the act with plans for his firm Blue Origin to send a manned mission to the Moon.

NASA is a mission agency and not a regulatory agency

Scott Hubbard

The report – Review and Assessment of Planetary Protection Policy Development Process –  states that no regulatory agency within the US government has the authority to “authorize and continually supervise” non-governmental space exploration as obligated by the international Outer Space Treaty.

To remedy the private-sector gap, the report recommends that Congress pass legislation that “grants jurisdiction to an appropriate federal regulatory agency” to authorize and supervise private-sector space activities that raise planetary-protection issues. While the US has the Federal Aviation Administration, it only authorizes launch and re-entry to Earth with its main concern being to protect the public.  Also, private missions are independent from NASA. “The expertise in the federal government for planetary protection almost exclusively lies within NASA’s capabilities, but NASA is a mission agency and not a regulatory agency,” committee member Scott Hubbard from Stanford University told Physics World. 

Developing a plan

Hubbard, who has about 45 years of experience with space efforts, says that the 15-strong committee that wrote the report found that the private sector was “further along” than they had expected. Yet he is optimistic that government will act quickly to introduce legislation to address the regulatory gap. “I have always found space to be not only bipartisan but often nonpartisan — it creates high-tech jobs, it is national prestige and it is great for scientific discovery,” says Hubbard. “I would hope that a bipartisan solution can be found and can be found rather quickly.”

With NASA planning a Mars sample-return campaign and manned mission to Mars, the report also recommends that the agency develops its own “planetary protection strategic plan”. This would help to reduce potential contamination of another planet’s possible biology as well as Earth’s biosphere when missions return back.

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