Press Release

ESF and the American Space Studies Board release a study report on “Planetary Protection Classification of Sample Return Missions from the Martian Moons”

The European Science Foundation (ESF), in close collaboration with the Space Studies Board (SSB) of the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine of the U.S, have released a 2-year study report on the appropriate planetary protection classification for the Martian Moons, Phobos and Deimos and released a study report.

The main objective of the study was to recommend ‘restricted’ or ‘unrestricted’ sample return from the Martian Moons. This refers to the classification of any Extra-terrestrial samples returned to Earth by spacecraft missions and specifically whether there is a need for more (in case of restricted return) or less-rigorous (in case of unrestricted) post-return containment restrictions.

Although the moons themselves are not considered potential habitats for life or of intrinsic relevance to prebiotic chemical evolution, recent studies indicate that a significant amount of material recently ejected from Mars could be present on the surface of Phobos and, to a lesser extent, Deimos. Since several space agencies have recently expressed interest to sample return from Phobos (or potentially Deimos), ESA and NASA asked ESF and SSB to make an assessment of the current knowledge on the matter and recommend the appropriate status for the potential sample return.

An international committee of leading scientists from Europe, U.S and Japan, with a wide range of expertise (biology, geology, space engineering, planetology) reviewed recent theoretical, experimental, and modeling research on the environments and physical conditions encountered by Mars ejecta during certain processes.

The concluding report has recently been made officially available from NAP publications for free (pdf download):

The report recommends that missions returning samples from Phobos and/or Deimos should be classified as “unrestricted” Earth return in the framework of the planetary protection policy maintained by COSPAR.

This report also considers the specific ways the classification of sample return from Deimos is a different case than sample return from Phobos.

This report is following the long-established tradition of meaningful collaboration between ESF and SSB, which has been going on for the last two decades.

Issued By:
ESF Communications, +33 (0)3 88 76 71 18, media[at]esf[dot]org

Notes to Editors

About Planetary Protection
Planetary Protection, is an umbrella term used by space agencies and experts to refer to a set of policies that exist to:
a) protect solar system bodies from contamination by Earth life (forward contamination), in order to preserve the ability to conduct future origin-of-life and other life-related studies at those destinations and
b) protects Earth’s inhabitants and environment from harm that could be caused by the introduction of extraterrestrial life (back contamination).
Space Agencies, including NASA and ESA, maintain planetary protection policies and administer associated procedures to ensure compliance with them.  Agency policies are informed by the most current scientific information available about the target bodies and about life on Earth.

About the European Science Foundation
The European Science Foundation (ESF) is a science services organisation that contributes to the European Research Area (ERA). It is building on core strengths developed in grant and programmatic evaluation and project management services. It currently hosts three Expert Boards and Committees (CRAF: Radio-astronomy frequencies, NUPECC: Nuclear physics, ESSC: Space sciences), and one learned society in planetary sciences. (Europlanet Society) These entities provide in-depth and focused scientific expertise in selected disciplines.

ESF is committed to delivering the highest quality for its member organisations, the science community, and various public and private science stakeholders and to provide valued services to Europe and worldwide. The ESF Community of Experts, drawn from the 130,000+ ESF pool of experts in various disciplines, plays a vital role in sustaining scientific collaboration, and supporting excellence in grant and programmatic evaluation. Today it comprises over 8,000 key experts in all scientific disciplines. More information at: