It's a wilderness out there in outer space. And as robotic surrogates set the stage for human footprints on Mars and other planetary bodies, just how much respect for other worlds should we have?
One suggested response would establish planetary parks for the solar system, an answer that ties together space science and exploration, ethics, law, policy, diplomacy and communications.
The parks would be organized under a single management system, with clear regulations for protection and use. But just what are the benefits of establishing a park system on target planets and moons before starting an intense program of exploration, and exploitation, of bodies in our solar system?
A system of planetary parks fits with the ideas of such groups as the Committee on Space Research, advocates of the proposal note. COSPAR's long list of agenda items includes an active discussion of planetary protection.
COSPAR's objectives are to promote, on an international level, scientific research in space, with emphasis on the exchange of results, information and opinions. The organization also aims to provide a forum, open to all scientists, for the discussion of problems that may affect scientific space research.
Indeed, participants broached the planetary parks idea in June 2010 during COSPAR's Workshop on Ethical Considerations for Planetary Protection in Space Exploration, held at Princeton University.
"I think the concept is a useful one, and as we know more about planets like Mars, there is even more reason to think about developing planetary parks as we have the information to define where they might go," said Charles Cockell, a professor of astrobiology at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, and a leading proponent of the notion.
A network of parks on Mars would aim to preserve different regions on the Red Planet because of the variety of environments it contains.
Mars is home to deserts, extinct shield volcanoes, canyons and polar ice caps. By preserving representative portions of these features, a diversity of planetary parks with different features of outstanding beauty and intrinsic, natural worth could be established. The parks would also allow for maximum preservation of scientific heritage, both geologically and — perhaps — biologically. [6 Most Likely Places for Alien Life in the Solar System]
Red Planet rules
Space preservationists could apply such a system elsewhere, including the moon, and on asteroids and satellites of the giant planets. But, specifically for Martian parks, the following rules might apply:
No spacecraft or vehicle parts to be left within the park
No landing of unmanned spacecraft within the park
No waste to be left within the park
Access only on foot or via surface vehicle along predefined routes, or by landing in a rocket-powered vehicle in predefined landing areas
All suits, vehicles and other machines used in the park to be sterilized on their external surfaces to prevent microbial shedding
Partly scientific, partly ethical
A few reasons explain why parks are a good idea, even without any people on Mars, advocates say.
"I think the reasons are two-fold. It is partly scientific and partly ethical," Cockell said, pointing out:
One scientific argument is that it's useful to keep areas of other planetary bodies free of human activity, to maintain pristine conditions that can be used to answer scientific questions. This may turn out to be essential if researchers discover life elsewhere. It's also consistent with existing COSPAR planetary-protection policies that seek to prevent harmful contamination of other planetary bodies in order to preserve their scientific potential.
One ethical argument is that it says something about our species that we think about our actions elsewhere and attempt to mitigate our impact prior to establishing a permanent presence beyond the Earth. We might want to preserve some places in pristine condition for future generations. We may also want to protect unknown benefits that could potentially be gained from places in space that human activity has not altered.
"I think now is the time to do this because we are entering into a new era of both government and private exploration, which promises the possibility of many new organizations developing a spacefaring capability," Cockell said. "It would seem then that now is a good time to think about these questions afresh."
Cockell said that the idea is not to restrict space exploration, but rather to ensure that it is done in a thoughtful and far-sighted manner.
"By establishing parks, we might better be able to define those areas that should be left free of regulations and free for commercial development," Cockell said. "So they can be used as an impetus to help us think about places that should be left to ensure the unfettered expansion of private enterprise into space, as well as places we might want to turn into our first planetary parks."
Another leading thinker in this area is Gerda Horneck, at the Institute of Aerospace Medicine at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) in Cologne, Germany. While not expressing an official view of DLR, she sees the initiative as analogous to national park systems right here on Earth.
"A planetary park system could extend the reasons for practical protection policies beyond the utilitarian protection of scientific resources emphasized by planetary protection … into other utilitarian and intrinsic value arguments," Horneck told SPACE.com.
She added that such planetary park systems could still allow for the development of non-park areas by commercial enterprises, while incorporating regional protection for other objectives: scientific interest and use, preservation of historic value or natural beauty, or preservation for future generations.
"Thus, a strategy of planetary parks for the solar system could help solve future potential-use conflicts, incorporate both utilitarian and intrinsic-value arguments and be organized under a single management system, with clear regulations for protection and use," Horneck said.
Such an approach would also address considerations about moral and legal definitions of wilderness on other planetary bodies, Horneck added, "and would allow us to express a respect for other worlds."
Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. He has written for SPACE.com since 1999.
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