I have said before that one day science fiction won’t be science fiction anymore; it will just be fiction. To some degree, we already live in a sci-fi world. Look at all the diseases we can now cure, or look at the International Space Station, or just look at everything our cell phones can do. Today, we’re going to take a look at something else that may sound like science fiction but is in fact 100% real: the Office of Planetary Protection.
The Office of Planetary Protection is sort of like the Environmental Protection Agency for the Solar System. Its job is to ensure that NASA doesn’t violate the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which stipulates among other things that any probe sent to another planet must not contaminate that planet with Earth-born bacteria. The point of this is not only to protect alien ecosystems (if they exist) but also to ensure that if we do discover life on another planet, we can be certain it’s genuine alien life and not something that stowed away on one of our own space vehicles.
Take Mars as an example. While it’s clear there isn’t anything like deer or grizzly bears on Mars, or even anything as small as a mouse or insect, there could be native Martian bacteria. These microscopic organisms might live in areas like Newton Crater, where scientists have observed what appears to be liquid water seeping through the soil. This water might be enough to support an entire ecosystem of microorganisms.
The Planetary Protection Office has another job as well: protecting us from any life forms that might threaten our own ecosystem. Many nations, including the United States, are planning “sample return missions,” meaning they want to send a spacecraft to another world, have it collect samples, and send those samples back to Earth for further analysis in a laboratory. Obviously we want to avoid an outbreak of alien bacteria similar to what happened in Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain. The Planetary Protection Office will make sure that doesn’t happen.
But just as the EPA is the source of a lot of controversy, so too is the Office of Planetary Protection. Some scientists complain that planetary protection rules are making space exploration prohibitively expensive. Sending a probe to Mars is costly enough without having to pay so much extra to sterilize every single delicate, mechanical component. Given the current state of the economy and the current state of NASA’s budget, some say we shouldn’t waste money protecting alien ecosystems that might not even exist. There are also questions about how effective the Planetary Protection Office really is given the fact that some of the Curiosity rover’s tools may have been contaminated before its launch in 2011.
Dr. Catharine Conley, the person currently in charge of NASA’s Planetary Protection Office, at least has a sense of humor about her work. She owns a pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses, just like Will Smith from Men in Black. She got them as a gift her first day on the job. Despite the controversies, I feel safer knowing she’s there, keeping planet Earth safe from alien bacteria and keeping the alien bacteria safe from us.