Writer's Guide to Government Information

Resources to inject real life detail into your fiction

Archive for the tag “astrobiology”

Planetary Protection (Alien biohazards)

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

NOTE: Page had a “down for maintenance” message on 12/28/2013. Check back later. 

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 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.


Astrobiology Bibliography

Astrobiology Bibliography – http://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/hqlibrary/pathfinders/astro.htm

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • What sorts of life bearing compounds are found in meteorites?
  • What can Martian meteorites tell us about life?


An overview of items related to the search for life on other worlds. The bibliography is broken up into the following sections: Policies, Books, E-Books, Articles and Reports, Internet Resources.

In the books section, remember that interlibrary loan is your friend. Take the entry as it appears on the bibliography to your local library and they ought to be able to help you.

In the articles and reports section, you’ll want to copy and paste the titles that appear in entries with a link to NTRS (NASA Technical Reports Server). The link merely takes you to the search screen for the server. Searching the title will usually bring up the report. Articles will also usually be available from your library through interlibrary loan.

Intriguing items from the bibliography include:

  • Berendzen, Richard. Life Beyond Earth and the Mind of Man: A Symposium. Washington, DC: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Scientific and Technical Information Office, 1973.
  • Greenberg, Richard. Europa: The Ocean Moon: Search for an Alien Biosphere. Berlin: Springer-Verlag; Chichester, UK: Praxis Publishing, 2005.
  • Hoyle, Fred, and N.C. Wickramasinghe. Astronomical Origins of Life: Steps Towards Panspermia. Dordrecht; Boston, MA: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2000.

Astrobiology (NASA)

Astrobiology (NASA)  – http://astrobiology.nasa.gov

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • What is the Galactic Habitable Zone?
  • What can earth glaciers tell us about life in outer space?
  • What are the lakes on Titan made of?


The website is divided into a number of sections. Sections that appear to be more useful for writers and the general public include:

About Astrobiology – A brief overview of what is meant by Astrobiology.

Astrobiology Roadmap – From the website,

The Roadmap addresses three basic questions: how does life begin and evolve, does life exist elsewhere in the universe, and what is the future of life on Earth and beyond? Seven Science Goals outline the following key domains of investigation: understanding the nature and distribution of habitable environments in the universe, exploring for habitable environments and life in our own Solar System, understanding the emergence of life, determining how early life on Earth interacted and evolved with its changing environment, understanding the evolutionary mechanisms and environmental limits of life, determining the principles that will shape life in the future, and recognizing signatures of life on other worlds and on early Earth.

The Roadmap was last updated in 2008 and is available as a 16 page PDF file. Previous roadmaps from 1998 and 2003 are also available.

Focus Groups – From the website, “Astrobiology Focus Groups are open to the entire astrobiology community. Each addresses a topical area of particular community interest. Focus Groups provide venues for developing research areas across the broad astrobiology community, stimulating new areas of research, promoting long-distance collaborations, and contributing to astrobiology space missions.”

Clicking on names of focus groups will bring up a description of the group and work products, if any. For example, Icy Satellites Environments Focus Group, which focuses on Titan and Europa along with other bodies suspected of having oceans of water or other liquids, provides a listing of activities, meeting minutes, and presentations. A glance at the presentations for this group found two Titan related items that might inform a science fiction story:

  • Seasonal changes in Titan’s weather patterns bring extensive methane rainstorms to Titan’s low latitudes
  • Titan’s Lakes and their Role in the Methane Cycle

The presentation on Titan’s lakes had a handwritten summary of the “Huygens landing pool” in addition to providing material and the location and composition of methane lakes on Titan.

Other current focus groups include Lunar, Mars, Habitability and Astronomical Biosignatures, and Astrobiology and Society. This last group put out a six page white paper in 2010 discussing ways that future discoveries in astrobiology might affect society.

Education and Outreach – A set of articles and multimedia aimed at students and the general public. At least one of the articles is focused on the use of story telling in science education. Other articles are about early earth or reflections on exoplanets.

Seminars and Workshops – Webcasts of lectures from the NASA Astrobiology Institute. Webcasts seem to last about an hour and are somewhat technical but can be followed along. Lectures during 2010/2011 included:

  • Hydrothermal Conditions and the Origin of Cellular life
  • ESA/NASA ExoMars/Trace Gas Orbiter: A Search for Extant Habitability and Habitancy
  • Anaerobic Thermophilic Lithoautotrophs: Life Without Light and Oxygen
  • Permafrost Astrobiology: Field Expedition to Terrestrial Analogues of Martian Habitats and Inhabitants

This section also links to webinar archives on astrobiology from other institutions.

Events – A listing of upcoming meetings and symposia. Some on exotic topics like Volvox (Volcano dwelling algae).

Directory – Directory of every astrobiology team member. Information varies. All staff records will have an e-mail address. Some may have listing of current projects and publications.

Article archives – Appears to be a reverse chronological, tagged listing of every item appearing on the website. Notable items that appeared in 2011 included:

  • Timeline of a Mass Extinction
  • Great Lake on Europa
  • In Search of Virus Fossils
  • Living in the Galactic Danger Zone
  • Jupiter’s “Grand Tack” Reshaped the Solar System

Ask an Astrobiologist – An archive of Q&As related to astrobiology, astronomy and science in general. Answers can be searched or browsed by newly answered  or popular. Questions will be answered in 2-3 weeks and you’ll get a link with the answer. Users are encouraged to search or browse for answers first. There are also many resources for debunking 2012 myths.

Some of these sections link to the component institutions of NASA Astrobiology – NASA Astrobiology Institute, Astrobiology Science & Technology for Exploring Planets, Astrobiology Science & Technology Instrument Development and Exobiology & Evolutionary Biology. This makes the navigation somewhat odd at times. Just click on the AB Home or “Astrobiology Home” to find your way back to the primary website.

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