With coronavirus pandemic raging havoc across the globe, a new report reviewing the 'planetary protection' or 'planetary quarantine' has emerged suggesting that Earth could be at risk of alien microbes contamination travelling to the planet onboard some satellite or spaceflight. The report has raised concerns among the general public and some scientists who feel that due precautions should be taken in future launches. Scott Hubbard, an adjunct professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford University and the co-author of the report has said that he can see how an old fear of some alien contamination could reemerge amid the coronavirus outbreak.
The fear has been around for decades dating back to the earliest days of Space Age. There are many sci-fi movies and novels that have discussed the potential risk of alien contamination years ago. Michael Crichton's 1969 novel The Andromeda Strain is one such earliest example where the concept of alien microbes contamination has been discussed. In the novel, Michael has written about an alien microbe that travels to Earth on board of a military satellite and scientists race to contain it. The 1969 novel may become a reality someday and that is why scientists like Hubbard were asked by NASA to review the current planetary protection guidelines.
Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for Science Mission Directorate in August 2019 announced that he had asked the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to establish a group of experts to update COSPAR's guidelines on biological contamination and to review the report of NASA's Planetary Protection Independent Review Board (PPIRB). The main task of the committee was to review the recent findings and recommendations related to 'planetary protection', the safeguarding of Earth and other planets from biological cross-contamination.
The committee in its report recommended that NASA and other space agencies need to seriously plan the commercial activities taking place in deep space, particularly highlighting SpaceX founder Elon Musk's launch of Tesla roadster into space. The report said that the complication occurs when the Federal Aviation Administration issues license for commercial launches without much expertise on planetary protection, unlike NASA which has its own huge PP expertise. The report emphasised that the Outer Space Treaty should apply to both government and private sectors and that there should be some US government entities to supervise and advice on private space launches. The report also talks about the precautions in place to guard against contamination by NASA's upcoming Mars Sample Return mission.