Planetary Protection: NASA’s Guide On How Not To Screw Up The Universe

First Posted: Aug 30, 2016 04:15 AM EDT

"The Office of Planetary Protection" has been setup by NASA in collaboration with other International Organizations so as to prevent any "harmful contamination" of the places we explore in the Solar System as well as our own planet when we return.

As part of the Agency's efforts to prevent microbial life-forms hitching a ride on missions to other planets and making sure exploring spacecraft don't spread too many harmful Earth's organisms to all of our planetary neighbors.

Why do we need Planetary Protection Laws?  

According to HowStuffWorks, planetary protection was initially created in service of humanity's oldest question: are we alone in the Universe? "We would find it very difficult to identify Mars life if we already contaminated the planet with Earth life," says Catharine Conley, NASA's Planetary Protection officer. This dilemma led to the formation of planetary protection. Less contamination preserves the integrity of the Solar System's planets and protects them from any damage that Earth's organisms might cause. And it means that missions looking for life on other worlds will avoid misclassifying Earth life as ET.

NASA has different standards for planetary protection depending on where you want to go in the Solar System, though. If you want to go to places like the Moon or asteroids, the planetary protection rules for your spacecraft aren't that strict. But for special places like Mars and Europa your spacecraft will need to go through some sterilization procedures. That way, you won't inadvertently start any interplanetary microbe colonies.

What does it do?

According to its official site, the objectives of planetary protection are several-fold and include:

1. Preserving our ability to study other worlds as they exist in their natural states;

2. Avoiding the biological contamination of explored environments that may obscure our ability to find life elsewhere - if it exists; and

3. To ensure that we take prudent precautions to protect Earth's biosphere in case life does exist elsewhere.

"Planetary protection is probably the first time that humans have done that as a global species ever - look at what we can do in the future on the basis of what we have learned in the past," Catharine Conley told Inverse. "Because with planetary protection policy and avoiding harmful contamination, you are understanding that you have the potential to screw up the investigation of alien life." Protection agreements were signed in 1967 with the United Nations Outer Space Treaty.

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