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NASA pens new rules to prevent us from contaminating the Moon and Mars



NASA has a strict set of guidelines for sending missions out into space to prevent Earth microbes from contaminating the planets and moons that we visit. Now, the agency has revised those rules to clear the way for human missions to the Moon, and eventually Mars.

Science fiction has already taught us many lessons about the human exploration of space. Chief among those lessons is how we need to do everything we can to prevent some kind of harmful alien bacteria or organisms from being brought back to Earth.

On the flipside, however, is another crucial issue: to preserve the unique alien environments of our solar system – on the Moon, Mars, and other celestial bodies. To do this, we also need to prevent them from being contaminated by microbes that originate from Earth. That is one of the key points of the Outer Space Treaty – an international agreement for the fair and responsible use of space.

This is where NASA’s Office of Planetary Protection comes in. The sole concern for this part of the agency is the possibility of harmful biological contamination due to space exploration. Their rules and regulations cover both forward contamination (Earth microbes hitching a ride to another celestial body) and back contamination (returning spacecraft, or astronauts, or samples bringing alien microbes back to Earth).

This is an artist’s concept of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft approaching Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

By pure biological necessity, we bring microbes with us, no matter what we do or where we go. Apparently, with NASA’s previous rules, this fact would prevent any living astronaut from ever setting foot on Mars. They would also impose restrictions on visiting anywhere on the Moon that could have frozen water ice.

With new missions to the Moon currently in the works, such as NASA’s Artemis program, and with ideas for future crewed missions to Mars, the agency realized they needed to revisit these guidelines.

Now, after going over those rules, they have released two new NASA Interim Directives (NIDs) this week.

These directives take into account what they’ve learned from nearly 20 years of continuous human habitation of the International Space Station, as well as decades of robotic exploration of the Moon and Mars, and even from their plans for the new Lunar Gateway station.

The first NID changes how we treat the surface of the Moon. Before this, visiting anywhere on the lunar surface required special consideration, because we now know that the Moon has pockets of water ice. The new NID states that these restrictions now only count for specific areas of the surface where these pockets could exist; notably the so-called Permanently Shadows Regions at the bottom of craters near the lunar poles, and the Apollo landing sites which already contain biological materials left behind by the astronauts. The rest of the lunar surface would be free from planetary protection restrictions.

Moon-base-1This artist’s rendition shows a base on the Moon. Credit: ESA

“We are enabling our important goal of sustainable exploration of the Moon while simultaneously safeguarding future science in the permanently shadowed regions,” Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in a NASA press release. “These sites have immense scientific value in shaping our understanding of the history of our planet, the Moon and the solar system.”

The other NID updates the planetary protections in place for Mars. Before now, Mars had one of the most stringent sets of restrictions in place. Anything that would touch down on the surface needed to be almost completely sterilized before it would be allowed to launch. For landers and rovers with life-detection capabilities, such as the Viking landers or the new Perseverance rover, they would have to be even more thorough.

NASA-Perseverance-RoverThis artist’s rendition shows the Perseverance rover on the surface of Mars. Credit: NASA

Basically, there’s no sense in sending a robot to detect life on another planet if it only ends up detecting life that hitched a ride from Earth. To ensure that the search for extraterrestrial life is as honest and thorough as possible, we cannot bring anything with us.

The problem becomes: we can’t use the same sterilization methods with human astronauts as we do robotic explorers. So, if we are going to plan crewed missions to Mars, these rules have to change.

There’s one limitation to changing the rules, however. Even after over 40 years of exploring the surface of Mars, we still don’t know enough about it to develop a responsible set of restrictions.

“The challenge with Mars is that we simply don’t yet have enough information to know where it is we can go and where we shouldn’t go, and where we can go but we need to be more careful than other places,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said when the new NIDs were announced.

NASA Mars astronauts base roverA simulated base on Mars. Credit: NASA

NASA’s new Perseverance Rover is designed to search for signs that life existed on Mars in its distant past. It may even be able to tell us if there is life on the planet now (although in all likelihood, it would be microbes deep beneath the ground). Perseverance is currently scheduled to launch later this month, with a landing in Mars’ Jezero crater in February of 2021. So, once Perseverance arrives and begins its investigations, the science it collects will go into forming these new rules for human missions to Mars.


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Northern municipalities put support behind satellite internet service –



The Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities (FONOM) has cast its attention skyward in joining other Northern Ontario stakeholders calling for better access to high-speed internet.

At its recent board meeting, the municipal advocacy group passed a resolution indicating its support for Starlink, a satellite internet service being developed by SpaceX, the company founded by U.S.-based innovator Elon Musk.

“We know today our citizens require greater connectivity than 50/10 megabits per second,” said FONOM president Danny Whalen in a Sept. 16 news release.

“FONOM believes that the Starlink program is our best option.”

According to a report released by Blue Sky Net earlier this year, the average download speed of participants in a study of northern internet users was just below 9 megabits per second (Mbps) and the average upload speed was just above 5 Mbps.

But for the average user that relies on fast internet speeds for business, education and more, download speeds of 50 Mbps and upload speeds of 10 Mbps are required as the bare minimum to participate in those activities.

In 2018, the federal government’s Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) set a new target to have 90 per cent of Canadian households with services that deliver download speeds of 50 Mbps and upload speeds of 10 Mbps by 2021. But that goal is still far from being achieved.

Starlink is aiming to deliver high-speed broadband internet, via satellite, to locations where access has been unreliable, expensive, or completely unavailable.

It’s targetting the northern U.S. and Canada for its initial release in 2020, and has plans to reach “near global coverage” in 2021.

The FONOM resolution calls on the CRTC to provide Starlink with a basic international telecommunications licence, which would allow the company to conduct international telecommunications activities.

FONOM said it would also seek support from its partners for the Starlink program.

FONOM, which represents 100 communities in northeastern Ontario, works to better municipal government in Northern Ontario and improve legislation respecting local government in the North.

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Venus is a Russian planet — say the Russians – CTV News



No longer confined to territories here on Earth, Russia has now staked its claim on Venus, saying it is a “Russian planet.”

This week, Dmitry Rogozin, head of the Russian space corporation Roscosmos, revealed that the country plans to send its own mission to Venus in addition to “Venera-D,” the planned joint mission with the US, the Russian state news agency TASS reported.

Rogozin was addressing reporters at the HeliRussia 2020 exhibition, an international expo of the helicopter industry in Moscow.

“Resuming Venus exploration is on our agenda,” he told reporters Tuesday.

“We think that Venus is a Russian planet, so we shouldn’t lag behind,” he said.

“Projects of Venus missions are included in the united government program of Russia’s space exploration for 2021-2030.”

The statement came the day after scientists revealed that a gas on Earth called phosphine had also been detected in the atmosphere of Venus.

Venus is similar in size to Earth and is our closest planetary neighbour, but it spins backward compared to other planets.

The study authored by Cardiff University professor Jane Greaves and her colleagues was published Monday in the journal Nature Astronomy.

The discovery of phosphine on Venus elevates it to an area of interest worth exploring in our solar system alongside the ranks of Mars and “water world” moons like Enceladus and Europa, Seager said.

“Our hoped-for impact in the planetary science community is to stimulate more research on Venus itself, research on the possibilities of life in Venus’ atmosphere, and even space missions focused to find signs of life or even life itself in the Venusian atmosphere,” Seager said.

According to the European Space Agency, the Russians do have significant experience when it comes to Venus.

Its website states: “Between 1967-1984 Venusian studies carried out in Russia were at the forefront of international research into this planet.

“Since then, Russia has still preserved its unique expertise in designing and developing landing craft for Venus and continues to define scientific tasks for those craft.”

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COVID-19 messages may need to have greater impact – The Sudbury Star



As the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, there’s a growing risk people may be tuning out information they need to know, says Dr. David Colby.

This undated transmission electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2, also known as novel coronavirus, the virus that causes COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the U.S. Virus particles are shown emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab. The spikes on the outer edge of the virus particles give coronaviruses their name, crown-like.

Photo supplied

As the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, there’s a growing risk people may be tuning out information they need to know, says Dr. David Colby.

“Higher-impact” messages may be necessary, said Chatham-Kent’s medical officer of health.

“There is such a thing as message fatigue as well,” Colby said. “Personally, I think it’s not a question of increasing the amount of education we’re doing but rather changing it up into a different style so that it refocuses peoples’ attention on the issues at hand.”

If people keep seeing the same message, eventually they no longer notice it, he said.

“Improvements can always be made,” Colby said. “We never want to get to the point where we basically sit back and say, ‘We’ve done it all. Let’s wait and see what happens.’

“We’re always searching to have a greater impact on people’s behaviour to the benefit of their health.”

The 401 new cases reported Friday in Ontario were the province’s highest single-day total since June 7 had 415 cases.

The numbers are better in Chatham-Kent, which reported no new cases for the sixth consecutive day Friday. The municipality’s cumulative total is 366 cases.

One more recovery raised Chatham-Kent’s total to 362. No one is hospitalized.

Active cases are down to two. Both stem from close contact with other cases.

There have been 25,756 individuals tested in Chatham-Kent.

“As the provincial numbers of new cases are increasing substantially, resulting in all this concern … we are not seeing that yet here,” Colby said, “but we will always be vigilant to deal with whatever comes our way, both in a reactive but especially a proactive way.”

The numbers were reversed in late July and early August. New cases were spiking in Chatham-Kent but sinking overall in the province.

“As our cases were going up, the provincial cases were going down sharply,” Colby said. “At a time when the (daily) number of new cases in the province was less than a hundred, that’s when we were dealing with our huge surge. We dealt with that. We are at a very, very low level now.”

Sarnia-Lambton has one active case, Middlesex-London has 53 active after 13 new cases were confirmed Friday, and Windsor-Essex County has 89 active cases.

Colby sympathizes with people suffering from pandemic fatigue.

“It’s difficult because people are tired of this, and none more than those on the front line that are dealing with it in public health,” he said. “It is very difficult.”

Anyone who says there’s no pandemic shouldn’t look to him for support.

“I have no idea how to deal with people that deny there’s a pandemic,” he said. “It’s sort of, to me, like people that deny that there are trees and rocks.”

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