Should we care about other planets?
by Linda Billings
|Some members of the space community have been asking whether planetary protection policy should be broadened to encompass the need to preserve and protect pristine extraterrestrial environments for their own sake as well as for science.|
Spacefaring nations do have a legal playbook to follow as they go about their exploring. It’s the 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty (a.k.a. the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies). The Princeton group focused on Article IX of the Treaty, which dictates that “States Parties to the Treaty shall pursue studies of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, and conduct exploration of them so as to avoid their harmful contamination and also adverse changes in the environment of the Earth resulting from the introduction of extraterrestrial matter and, where necessary, shall adopt appropriate measures for this purpose.”
Toward fulfilling obligations under Article IX, the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and COSPAR maintain planetary protection policies that require space exploration missions to avoid contaminating extraterrestrial (ET) environments with terrestrial biology, and vice versa (a particular concern when spacefaring nations start bringing samples back to Earth from potentially habitable bodies such as Mars).
These national and international policies aim to preserve and protect pristine ET environments for scientific research. With solar system exploration focusing on the search for evidence of ET life, it’s important for scientists to be sure that, if and when they find such evidence, it’s a sign of indigenous life and not pollution delivered by a foreign spacecraft.
Against a backdrop of a vigorous and decades-long public discourse about protecting our home planet, some members of the space community have been asking whether planetary protection policy should be broadened to encompass the need to preserve and protect pristine extraterrestrial environments for their own sake as well as for science—hence, the Princeton workshop.
|I believe it’s not too early to start worrying about whether and how we move off this planet.|
One idea is to set aside pristine areas of certain planetary bodies as “planetary parks”, to be left untouched and appreciated for their own sake. Another idea is to initiate a broad public dialogue about planetary protection, reaching out far beyond the space community.
The most radical policy option would be to leave the planets alone, permanently. After 25 years of tracking space exploration and more years than that watching human beings foul their own nest to near-ruin, I tend to lean toward this option.
I know it’s not a viable one. Too many nations have invested too much of their resources in space exploration, and they’re not going to stop now. I can only hope that global environmental consciousness grows to the point where the people of Earth not only start to take better care of their own planet but also agree to treat other planets respectfully.
Though I believe human exploration and settlement of the solar system is much further off in the future than its advocates claim, I also believe it’s not too early to start worrying about whether and how we move off this planet.
One of the worst, and most common, rationales put forth for human expansion into space is to ensure that humankind survives, if and when Earth can no longer sustain us. If we can’t even keep our own house clean, we have no business going elsewhere, let alone staying…