Image: Map of Mars showing the location of six possible planetary parks.
Cockell/Horneck
Map of Mars showing the location of six possible planetary parks.
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Space.com
updated 4/4/2013 12:48:14 PM ET 2013-04-04T16:48:14

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?

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Planetary protection
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.

Why now?
"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

As for those dismissive of the idea, Cockell told SPACE.com that he thinks such reactions occur primarily because there isn't anyone on Mars or anywhere else beyond Earth orbit at the moment — so why would you want to set up parks?

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.

Expansion of private enterprise
"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."

Potential-use conflicts
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 is former director of research for the National Commission on Space and a past editor-in-chief of the National Space Society's Ad Astra and Space World magazines. He has written for SPACE.com since 1999.

© 2013 Space.com. All rights reserved.

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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