On July 20, 2016, the FAA-AST made a favorable payload determination for the Moon Express MX-1E commercial space mission.  The MX-1E is a spacecraft/lander capable of transfer from Earth orbit to the Moon, making a soft landing on the lunar surface, and performing post-landing relocations through propulsive “hops.”

According to FAA’s press release “the FAA has determined that the launch of the payload does not jeopardize public health and safety, safety of property, U.S. national security or foreign policy interests, or international obligations of the United States. The FAA’s authority to make payload determinations is derived from 51 U.S.C. 50904. The FAA’s regulatory requirements for payload reviews is outlined in 14 CFR §415, Subpart D. A payload review may be conducted as part of a license application review or a payload owner or operator may request it in advance of or apart from a license application. The FAA consults with other agencies to determine whether the launch of a proposed payload or payload class would present any issues affecting public health and safety, safety of property, U.S. national security or foreign policy interests, or international obligations of the United States. The interagency process is outlined in 14 CFR §415, Subpart D.”

The FAA determination is formally fine in all respects but it does not seem to include consideration of payload’s compliance with COSPAR Planetary Protection Policy that represent de-facto international rules to prevent biological and chemical contamination of Moon and planets. The relevant standards are routinely applied by all agencies involved in space exploration but on a voluntary basis. Those applicable to Moon missions are rather light and essentially documentation oriented.

COSPAR & Planetary Protection Policy

When Sputnik 1 was launched in 1957, the Cold War was at its height. The space programs of the US and the USSR were in part products of the military and political competition of the time. However, the scientific potential of space exploration was widely recognized well before the Sputnik launch, and so it was immediately appreciated that, given the very poor state of scientific communication between East and West a new channel of communication needed to be opened up. In 1958, out of this recognition, the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) was established by the International Council for Science.

Among COSPAR’s objectives are the promotion of scientific research in space on an international level, with emphasis on the free exchange of results, information, and opinions, and providing a forum, open to all scientists, for the discussion of problems that may affect space research. These objectives are achieved through the organization of symposia, publication, and other means. COSPAR has created a number of research programs on different topics, but COSPAR has also other roles including a crucial one on planetary protection.

COSPAR acts as the international body which identifies the necessary conditions for the preservation of near-Earth space and the Moon and planets so that basic and applied science can be carried out and manned spaceflight can be conducted safely, at the same time allowing for appropriate commercial exploitation of these regions. In 1960 the need was recognized to establish standards for lunar missions to avoid chemical and biological contamination of the Moon. A panel (now called Panel on Planetary Proprtection, PPP) on this and related topics has existed in one form or another ever since, producing its first standard in 1962. This is difficult area because COSPAR has no role in implementing the standards it sets up, and can apply no sanctions if they are not observed other than expose breaches to public opinion..

The United Nations COPUOS should solicit spacefaring countries envisaging commercial exploitation of space to make COSPAR planetary protection standards mandatory by national legislation. It would prevent  mistakes and allow fair commercial competition

One Response

  1. Moon Express

    Thank you for this insightful article. We want to assure that “Planetary Protection” provisions were explicitly included within our ‘Mission Approval’ proposal, and had they been absent, we do not believe that we would have received a positive determination.

    Planetary Protection is interpreted as part of the “international obligations of the United States” under Article IX of the Outer Space Treaty. Our Mission Approval Application included an addendum specifically addressing our Planetary Protection plans and covenants, consistent with COSPAR guidelines and documentation formats used by NASA.

    Throughout our Mission Approval preparation and interagency review process, careful attention was paid to U.S. international obligations and considerations, particularly those embodied in the Outer Space Treaty.

    While it’s true that Planetary Protection considerations applicable to Moon missions are rather light and essentially documentation oriented, Moon Express was careful to propose its activities within international planetary exploration standards and conventions.

    We hope this clarification is helpful

    – Moon Express.

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