JPL's Biotechnology and Planetary Protection Group has had a longstanding involvement in planetary projection and space biology, and has a more recent focus on non-space-related biotechnology research. As implementers of planetary protection, the BPP Group ensures that spacecraft meet stringent cleanliness requirements, which protect other solar system bodies from Earth life and protect Earth from extraterrestrial life that may be brought back by returning space missions. In support of this implementation role, the BPP Group seeks to advance spacecraft cleanliness, sterilization, and validation technologies for NASA's solar system exploration missions.
JPL's BPP Group includes more than 20 full-time scientists, engineers, and technicians who are researchers and hardware implementation specialists. Collectively, the group has extensive expertise in general microbiology and genetics, classical and molecular microbial taxonomy, analystical chemistry and biochemistry, chemical engineering, molecular biology, physics, probability analysis, research design, biosensor technology, and space instrument engineering. The BPP Group conducts other biotechnology R&D activities in addition to those related to planetary protection. The activities of the BPP Group center on five processes:
- Clean or sterilize - remove or kill particles, viable or non viable organisms and residue for spacecraft hardware.
- Validate - determine the effectiveness of decontamination processes by sampling, quantifying, and then identifying any remaining contamination.
- Maintain - identify and remove any recontamination during assembly, transit, and final launch preparation.
- Archive - record the biological history of hardware and launch areas for future planetary protection and science requirements.
- Contain - ensure the bio-containment and scientific integrity of returned samples using appropriate handling procedures and technologies.
To advance detection methods, numerous new technologies are being developed and validated by the BPP Group, including:
- Whole cell counting using epifluorescence microscopy
- Nucleic acid and other gene-based detection
- Plasma Sterilization Technology
- Limulus amebocyte lysate (LAL) detection for Gram-negative bacteria
- Advanced spore detection
- Amino acid analysis using capillary electrophoresis
- Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) analysis