We hope to find traces of life on the planet Mars, on Jupiter’s moon Europa or some other body of the solar system. To achieve this, we send robots to the surface of these bodies. So we run the risk of sending terrestrial microorganisms. Our planet is so full of life that even the smallest cubic centimeter of air or any exposed surface is full of bacteria and microbes.
If we discover a microorganism on the planet Mars, we have to be sure that it is a local species and not a stowaway stowaway. We must also be sure that we are not committing genocide at the planetary level by landing a new dominant species on these celestial bodies.
Therefore, to avoid possible contamination, the space agencies follow the guidelines for the protection of the planet. This includes the decontamination of robots for space exploration. For this reason, for example, the Cassini probe was thrown into the atmosphere of Saturn in September 2017. This will ensure that none of the frozen Saturn moons that are believed to potentially contain life are hit.
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Of course, the planetary protection also works in the other direction. When an alien sample is brought to Earth, it is important that it contains no form of alien life. The few samples collected on the Moon or other celestial objects are stored in specially designed laboratories to prevent contamination in one direction or the other. This is called the precautionary principle. In fact, we do not know about the survivability of terrestrial microorganisms outside the Earth, nor about the survivability of potential extraterrestrial microorganisms. To monitor this, some space agencies, such as NASA, hire specialists, such as planetary guards.
Mankind has seen many times how the arrival of a new species can disturb a whole ecosystem. For example, the arrival of the Asian hornet in Europe had many implications. Therefore, it seems important to avoid reproducing the same phenomenon on a planetary scale.
How Does NASA Planetary Protection Work?
Sterile Beginnings: The History of Planetary Protection
Although astronomers and astrobiologists already discussed the protection of planets in 1956, they were not mobilized until 1958. In the spring of this important year, the National Academy of Sciences founded the Space Science Board to study the scientific aspects of space exploration by humans.
In June, based on the Board’s recommendations, the Academy shared its concerns about contamination with the International Congress of Scientific Trade Unions (ICSU) and hoped to make the issue a global concern. What did the ICSU do? Form a committee on alien exploration contamination (CETEX) to assess whether human exploration of the Moon, Venus, and Mars could lead to contamination. The CETEX people argued that terrestrial microorganisms have little hope of surviving on the moon, but that they may be able to find an existence on Mars or Venus. As a result, CETEX has recommended that people send only sterilized spacecraft, including orbiters, which could have a random impact, to those planets.
In the fall of 1958, the ICSU decided it was time to form another planetary protection committee. This, known as the Space Research Committee, or COSPARkam, will eventually monitor the biological aspects of interplanetary exploration, including the sterilization of spacecraft and the quarantine of planets. COSPAR replaced CETEX. Roger that?
At the same time, NASA was born in the United States. In 1959, NASA Director of Space Programs, Abe Silverstein, issued the first formal declarations by the US Space Agency to protect the planets:
The National Aerospace Authority has considered the problem of sterilizing payloads that could affect a celestial body. As a result of the considerations, the NASA policy established that payloads that could affect a celestial body need to be sterilized before launch.
In the same year, responsibilities for planetary protection jumped around NASA like an orphaned child. They were first delegated to the Office of Life Sciences and then to the Office of Space Science and Applications. In 1963, within the Biosciences programs of this agency, the Planet Quarantine Program began and oversaw several Apollo missionary activities, such as. For example, shielding lunar rocks from contamination of the earth and protecting the earth from small wild animals if they existed.