Writer's Guide to Government Information

Resources to inject real life detail into your fiction

Planetary Protection (Alien biohazards)

Planetary Protection – http://planetaryprotection.nasa.gov

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • How were the Apollo astronauts quarantined?
  • What solar system bodies are deemed worthy of protection by NASA?
  • What measures were taken with Mars Global Surveyor to avoid contamination of Mars?


With the motto, “All of the planets, all of the time”, this site is devoted to educating scientists and the general public on the measures that NASA takes to ensure that Earth life (humans aside) stays on Earth and that any potential biological organisms in the Solar System are not accidentally unleashed on the Earth ala The Andromeda Strain.

The site is divided into the following sections:

About Planetary Protection – General discussion about what Planetary Protection is and why it is considered necessary for both Earth and possible homes of life. Not all solar system bodies are accorded the same level of protection. NASA’s Planetary Protection office places solar system bodies and space missions into one of five categories where Category I is a mission to a body deemed lifeless, such as the Moon or the Sun and Category V is a probe returning a sample to Earth from a body deemed at least somewhat capable of sustaining life (i.e. soil samples from Mars.) Descriptions of all five categories can be found at http://planetaryprotection.nasa.gov/about-categories.

Solar System Bodies – A brief section describing which bodies fall under which categories of protection.

Solar System Missions – This section lists past, current and future solar system missions which were considered subject to Planetary Protection protocols. The short article on the failed Mars Climate Orbiter indicates a small possibility of contamination of Mars by the Orbiter’s crash onto the Red Planet.

Methods – This page describes how sterile conditions for space probes subject to Planetary Protection protocols are created, current sterilization and life detection methods. According to the page, while research into new methods of assigning biological risk are being developed, current practice uses what was developed in the 1975 decontamination of the Viking landers. This section could be useful for stories where characters are trying to avoid cross-contamination

Course – If you’re part of the scientific community, you can sign up for a class in planetary protection. Enrollment is limited and course materials do not appear to be online.

Documents – This one of the more information intensive portions of the site with links to numerous reports. Some that might be of interest to writers thinking about first contact or Andromeda Strain scenarios are:

  • A Draft Test Protocol for Detecting Possible Biohazards in Martian Samples Returned to Earth
  • NPD 7100.10E: Curation of Extraterrestrial Materials
  • The Planetary Quarantine Program: Origins and Achievements, 1956-1973
  • Chronology of Lunar and Planetary Exploration, 1957-present
  • Preventing the Forward Contamination of Europa
  • Evaluating the Biological Potential in Samples Returned From Planetary Satellites and Small Solar System Bodies

News of Interest – Various media articles from 1999 to present on the subject of Planetary Protection.

Links to More Information – Various links to materials on solar system bodies and astrobiology, including Astrobiology Magazine.

Glossary of Terms – A basic glossary related to Planetary Protection protocols. Definitions vary from a sentence to a paragraph.

Contacts – Allows you to contact NASA’s Planetary Protection Officer.



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