Hexbyte  Tech News  Wired In Search of New Rules to Protect Other Worlds From Earth’s Cooties

Hexbyte Tech News Wired In Search of New Rules to Protect Other Worlds From Earth’s Cooties

Hexbyte Tech News Wired

NASA has to start protecting planets better. The international treaty governing space—there is one—and the laws and regulations that follow it date back to the Cold War. That was before scientists knew about the oceans on moons around other planets, before they knew about how tough microorganisms get here on Earth (and so maybe in space too?), before they started planning experiments to look for life on Mars, and before tech billionaires started threatening to send people to space.

So if NASA’s Planetary Protection Officer—there is one—is going to live up to the coolest job title in the solar system, the space agency is going to need some different rules for keeping Earth’s bugs on Earth and alien strains on Andromeda (or wherever).

That’s the takeaway from a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine out today. America’s spaceketeers face some radical new challenges, it says. Some of them are the result of new experimental priorities and decades of scientific advance, and some of them are due to plain old scientific infighting.

Planetary Protection has two basic missions. “Backward protection” means making sure that nothing dangerous in space gets back to Earth. “Forward protection” is making sure that no Earthly gunk makes it off-world—primarily so that it doesn’t contaminate whatever science an Earth-born probe is doing.

None of that has ever really been a problem. Sample return missions to asteroids and a comet were no big deal; cosmic radiation sterilizes those. And Mars rovers have cautiously tiptoed around parts of Mars that have the potential to harbor life, or to have harbored it. “But we’re getting ready to go to places that have the potential for supporting viable life—the surface of Mars and the deep oceans of Europa and Enceladus,” says Joseph Alexander, a consultant and former NASA science mission director who chaired the NAS study. “The private sector is getting particularly interested in Mars. The international community of players who want to go to various planets is growing. And there’s a plan that the US has to send humans to Mars by 2030.” Space is about to get crowded, which means it’s even more important not to screw it up.

So Alexander’s panel recommends a few changes. Moving the Office of Planetary Protection to the department at NASA that’s responsible for safety might open up a few blocked channels. The report also suggests earlier discussions between space mission planners and planetary protectors, and more money for tools and analytics to determine just how clean something going to space needs to be. Another idea: Close the “regulatory gap” that lets commercial space companies skirt planetarily protective rules. (Apparently the SpaceX Falcon 9 that launched a Tesla never actually got the go-ahead for cleanliness, which is probably fine because it’s not supposed to intersect with anything planet-like for 10,000 years.)

The missions and asteroid mining of the future aren’t the only things pushing a revamp of planetary protection. The office has not always gotten along with the people who build spaceships, back to the beginning of the space program. “In the early days, it was very much the scientific community that advocated for forward and backward contamination control, forward to preserve science and backward because it was responsible,” says John Rummel, a biologist and NASA’s planetary protection officer from 1998 to 2006. “But if you get people who are not attuned to flight projects and how they work, you can get wrapped around the axle.”

Difficult negotiations over the Mars 2020 mission were a real breaking point. Some of the scientific instrumentation was repurposing designs used on the Curiosity lander, but because Mars 2020 is also the beginning of a possible sample return mission, Planetary Protection was holding it to a higher standard of cleanliness. Rumor says that those disagreements led to the sudden departure of the last planetary protection officer, Cassie Conley. Her replacement, Lisa Pratt, pitched looser regulations in one of her very first speeches after taking on the job.

The thing is, every time science improves, standards for cleanliness change. Scientists have more sensitive ways to look for life elsewhere, and to kill it off of spacecraft before they leave Earth. In practice, though, that means that just murdering Earthling microorganisms before a mission isn’t enough anymore. “They kill everything, but that doesn’t mean the thing is no longer on the spacecraft,” says Luther Beegle, a JPL astrophysicist and lead investigator on the “Sherloc” life-hunting sensor to be mounted on the Mars 2020 rover’s robot arm. “You could have a spacecraft with nothing but organic carcasses that weren’t visible.” And those could still trick the detector.

Since the Mars 2020 problems, the dynamic between OPP and JPL seems better. “The adversarial stuff is a little overblown,” Beegle says. “Everybody knows planetary protection is a good thing. It’s just a matter of how you implement it.”

Now the trick for NASA will be to bring the private sector and other countries on board with a new ruleset. And then? Alexander says that a regular human presence on Mars will change everything again. “We talk about whether policy says there is essentially a sunset clause on planetary protection,” he says. “Is it a strategy that initially lets humans go in some restricted areas and protects the rest of the planet, or the reverse, protecting small enclaves on Mars and letting humans go everywhere else?”

Planetary Protection only looks at life; its policies don’t say anything about pollution, or garbage, or crummy Mars colony architecture. “The larger ethical and aesthetic issues are real,” Alexander says. “But we did not address them.” No report can help the Office of Planetary Protection protect a planet against the future.


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Four Rules for Learning How to Talk To Each Other Again

Four Rules for Learning How to Talk To Each Other Again

You hate me! I know, because you tell me so, over and over again. I’m infuriatingly arrogant, comprehensively mistaken, and blithely unconscious of my good luck. I’m a citizen of Anywhere, but reside Somewhere with you, and share none of your affections and loyalties. I don’t understand the difficulties of ordinary life. Most of all, you resent my sneering contempt. You suspect I think you’re a racist rube, the worst thing a person can be in our society.

I’m not wild about you either, though not because you’re a hick who won’t do as I say. I concede your right to pursue your own good in your own way, but I dispute that your negative liberty to make choices for yourself constitutes a positive liberty to determine who may marry whom or deny preventive health care, including contraceptives, to women (to give two examples). I have my own resentments, too: There are big problems I want to help solve, such as replacing fossil fuels, curing intractable diseases, and creating meaningful work that pays real wages, and you insist on voting for leaders whose policies make solutions less likely.

Jason Pontin (@jason_pontin) is an Ideas contributor for WIRED. He was formerly the editor in chief and publisher of MIT Technology Review; before that he was the editor of Red Herring. Now he is a senior partner at Flagship Pioneering, a firm in Boston that funds companies that solve problems in health, food, and sustainability. Pontin does not write about Flagship’s portfolio companies nor about their competitors.

It’s no way to form a more perfect union. The great political question of the day is “How can we all get along?” All democratic nations want an answer, but the need feels pressing in the United States, where the citizens of a large and historically divided nation have been further alienated by social media, cable news, and modern political strategies. What social scientists call “affective polarization,” the measure of how much political tribes dislike one another, is as heated as it’s been since polling began: A 2016 study by the Pew Research Center found “that sizable shares of both Democrats and Republicans say the other party stirs feelings of not just frustration, but fear and anger.” Almost half of Republicans complained that Democrats were lazier than other Americans, more dishonest, closed-minded, and immoral. Democrats disparaged Republicans similarly, but in larger numbers. We’d even prefer not to shop or work in the same places, although it costs us.

Within the great red and blue tribes, there are yet more genera. We are lonely gamers and radical vegans, men’s rights advocates angry at the pussification of the culture, and women who have a hashtag to describe their harassment. But we no longer communicate. Every controversy has become part of America’s endless culture wars. When politics is so contested, and the two parties that represent reactionary and progressive attitudes are more or less evenly matched, inertia becomes normal. But the time is short, and our common challenges are urgent. Complete triumph is impossible in our constitutional republic; we are not going to fight another bloody civil war; no one is going anywhere. Somehow, we have to find a way to compromise.

Recently, I’ve been asking myself how I should speak and act at work, in my writing, on social media, and in my private life to make mutual understanding possible and compromises more likely. What can I do to be less irritating and provocative, more aware of my biases and the limits of my own reason? I could act with more humility, and clearly distinguish between statements for which I have evidence and pronouncements that merely express my preferences and rancors. I don’t pretend that I will always or often achieve this standard, but I should try, and I might be a good example to others, and especially to my own tribe.

Here’s how to speak in a polity where we loathe each other. Let this be the Law of Parsimonious Claims:

1. Say nothing you know to be untrue, whether to deceive, confuse, or, worst of all, encourage a wearied cynicism.

2. Make mostly falsifiable assertions or offer prescriptions whose outcomes could be measured, always explaining how your assertion or prescription could be tested.

3. Whereof you have no evidence but possess only moral intuitions, say so candidly, and accept you must coexist with people who have different intuitions.1

4. When evidence proves you wrong, admit it cheerfully, pleased that your mistake has contributed to the general progress.

Finally, as you listen, assume the good faith of your opponents, unless you have proof otherwise. Judge their assertions and prescriptions based on the plain meaning of their words, rather on than what you guess to be their motives. Often, people will tell you about experiences they found significant. If they are earnest, hear them sympathetically.

Taken together, the rules suggest a narrow, demilitarized zone for future conduct. All of life is problem-solving, but most problems have no current solution, because we do not know enough about the problem, or they have no conclusive solution, because the problem is not amenable to evidence. The first category of problems, which include all scientific and technological questions, can be provisionally answered. In The Logic of Scientific Discovery, first published in German in 1934, the philosopher Karl Popper suggested a plausible demarcation between scientific and other statements: “It must be possible for an empirical system to be refuted by experience.”

However, many of the problems we care about most, including a very large number political and metaphysical questions, are meaningful yet fall into the second, more resistant category. They must be renegotiated by every generation. In democratic societies no one gets everything they want, but they can compromise about anything except personal rights, which are enjoyed by everyone. In practical life, the two sorts of problems are related: If we can negotiate a compromise for a political problem, we can pose the outcome as a technical problem whose solution can be falsified. Inevitably, the solution is never entirely satisfactory to anyone, because a perfectly happy wolf requires a mob of dead sheep, but a good outcome makes it possible for us to coexist.

In a letter written in 1650, in an era more contentious than our own, the English parliamentary general Oliver Cromwell begged the General Assembly of the Kirk of Scotland to reconsider its alliance with Charles II: “You have censured others, and established yourselves ‘upon the Word of God.’ Is it therefore infallibly agreeable to the Word of God, all that you say? I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.” The only escape from the prison of our mutual disregard is to welcome mistakes as useful. It’s not much, but it’s a start upon which to build a truce. We have to find a way to begin to forgive each other.

1In fact, most of this column falls under this rule.


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