Preventing space pollution is high on the agenda

Hundreds of scientists from around the world are meeting in Britain this week to discuss the best ways to protect our planet and other celestial bodies from contamination.

Representatives from NASA, the European Space Agency and agencies from China, Japan and India, as well as private companies, will share techniques on how to explore other worlds responsibly.

Organizers of the first International Planetary Protection Week – including Prof Karen Olsson-Francis from the Open University in Milton Keynes – say the issue is crucial given the recent increase in space exploration.

The event will also look at how we can improve the ways we protect Earth from extraterrestrial life.

Protecting our planet from alien life (and vice versa) may sound like the plot of a Hollywood blockbuster, but it’s work scientists have been doing for decades.

Sterilization and carefully controlled clean rooms are used to build spacecraft to minimize the risk of forward contamination – where bacteria, viruses, fungi or spores on equipment could disrupt biospheres in other parts of the solar system.

When samples are returned to Earth from space, similar methods are used to prevent backward contamination, which could have harmful effects on our planet.

The more likely a mission site is to host indigenous life, the stricter the protection conditions for the planet.

For example, landing and drilling into the surface of Mars would involve significantly more measures than a mission in orbit around the sun.

Professor Karen Olsson-FrancisProfessor Karen Olsson-Francis

Prof Karen Olsson-Francis said all space agencies and private companies invited to the event would attend (BBC)

This week’s event involves 17 space organizations, academics and representatives from the commercial space sector.

Organizer Prof Karen Olsson-Francis from the Open University in Milton Keynes said planetary protection is about the integrity of science.

“It will allow us to answer some of the most fundamental questions about how life evolved on Earth and whether potential extinct or extinct life exists elsewhere in the solar system,” she said.

She added that there is much to be learned from the conversations currently being had about the planet’s environmental problems.

“We need to take action now to ensure we don’t cause harmful damage in space. This is an environmental problem,” she said.

Silvio Sinibaldi, the European Space Agency’s planetary protection officer, who will attend the event, said we are “living in a new era for space.”

“It used to be that there were a few agencies that carried out most of the missions, but now we have the private and commercial sectors in the loop,” he said.

“It’s about adapting the scenario to ensure that we really promote sustainable space.

“There is no successful mission if we don’t take cross-contamination into account.”

International Planetary Protection Week takes place from April 22 to 26 at the Royal Society in London and online.

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