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Planetary Protection of Outer Solar System

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Researchers strengthen global planetary protection cooperation

Exploring our solar system must be conducted in a clean and responsible manner if we are to avoid compromising the search for extraterrestrial life. An EU-funded project is providing an international platform for key stakeholders to exchange knowledge and produce policy recommendations that aim to ensure exactly that.

Space

Planetary protection is aimed at preventing contamination between the Earth and other bodies in the context of space missions. The EU-funded PPOSS project is helping to refine regulations on planetary protection that were first put in place by scientists about half a century ago. “Space exploration is changing quickly with an emerging private sector, new countries launching programmes and increasing evidence of the presence of liquid water – a prerequisite for all life – in planets and icy moons beyond Mars,” explains PPOSS project coordinator Patricia Cabezas from the European Science Foundation in France. “This makes the issue of contaminating other planets – as well as preventing Earth contamination from returning space missions – more relevant than ever.” Planetary protection policy recommendations at the international level are placed by the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) under the mandate of the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR). These regulations are vital to ensure that the scientific investment in space exploration is not compromised and to address fundamental questions about the origin and evolution of life. To date, planetary protection has mainly focused on planets close to the Sun, in particular Mars. With major space agencies currently planning a number of exploration missions beyond Mars however, a revision and update of the current policy is timely. Platform for protection The PPOSS project began by bringing together scientists, technology experts and policy makers involved in limiting contamination of planetary bodies. During the first two years, workshops were held to develop guidance for this European and international planetary protection community. “These workshops gathered scientific experts from Europe, the USA, China and Japan along with representatives of their respective national space agencies and other key stakeholders,” says Cabezas. The PPOSS International Planetary Protection Handbook was developed out of these sessions. This will serve as a reference guide to educate and train new generations of researchers and engineers that have to deal with planetary protection requirements long after the present project has finished. In addition, a preliminary version of a ‘Research Whitebook’, which identifies key scientific challenges in the exploration of icy moons within the framework of planetary protection, is also being made available. “This is something that has been warmly welcomed by the scientific community,” says Cabezas. Another example of the project’s long-term perspective is the development of a European roadmap to identify critical technologies that will be required over the next 15 to 20 years to address planetary protection from outer solar system bodies. In the final stages of the project, a review of the current planetary protection regulation process, as well as planetary protection guidelines related to outer solar system bodies, will be produced. These will go a considerable way towards redefining current international regulations on planetary protection. Global space community Another key objective of the PPOSS project has been to build a sustainable and solid international planetary protection community involving the USA, Europe, China and Japan. In the final year of the project, efforts will be made to establish links with space communities in Russia, India and the United Arab Emirates. “Already, a series of international training sessions on the basics of planetary protection have been provided to engineers, agency managers, scientists and students,” says Cabezas. “The first one took place at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and three further sessions will take place in 2018 in the USA, China and Germany respectively.” While the PPOSS project will end in December 2018, the consortium will continue to assist COSPAR in updating its planetary protection policy.

Keywords

PPOSS, COSPAR, planetary protection, aerospace, space, solar system, moons, Mars, sun, exploration, COPUOS, Earth

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