April 9, 2020

Astronomy Video of the Week: Protecting the Planet

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft at Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

(Image credit: JPL/NASA).

Where humans go, our bacterial biome follows… but how do we protect future pristine environments from, well, us? The SETI Institute recently published a fascinating discussion on the topic of planetary protection as part of its weekly SETI Talks series. Titled Integrating Planetary Protection in Human Missions, Dr. Margaret Race discusses the past, present and future issues surrounding the sterilization of interplanetary missions. Dr. Race is an expert in the field of planetary protection science. And besides its paramount importance, the title of ‘planetary protection officer’ is simply the Best. Job Title. Ever.

Just how will we protect tasty new alien environments from the bacteria that walking water-bags like ourselves transport to said brave new worlds? What types of measures and safeguards do we need to take on sample return missions? And have we already contaminated alien environments? Perhaps, when we do encounter aliens, they will indeed turn out to be us. Certainly, those old missions didn’t have the sterilization methods that are routine today, and not all space-faring countries maintain the same standards, even today. Already, studies have shown that bacteria have been able to thrive for years on the exterior of the International Space Station exposed to the radiation riddled vacuum of space. Another fascinating cautionary tale is the camera of Surveyor 3. Apollo 12 astronauts brought back the camera in 1969. Researchers on Earth later detected bacteria from Earth in the camera that had managed to survive over two years of existence on the Moon.

Life is turning out to be tough, that’s for sure… and the job of planetary protection is even tougher.


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