In a recent article by popular science and technology magazine Space.com, I read about how a committee of scientists have suggested that a series of ‘planetary parks’ should be established on the surface of Mars. These parks would serve to protect areas of the Martian wilderness from human intervention in much the same way as nature reserves do on Earth, preserving them for scientific study and for the enjoyment of future generations.
The idea was put forward by COSPAR (the Committee on Space Research) during their 2010 Workshop on Ethical Considerations for Planetary Protection in Space Exploration at Princeton University, although this is not the fist time the idea has been discussed. Now, COSPAR was not intimating in any way that life exists or has ever existed on Mars (although a slim possibility remains), but instead proposed to recognize the intrinsic value of the Martian surface, lifeless as it may be, as an area of outstanding natural beauty and special scientific interest.
It might sound silly to some people, but the study of Mars is key to developing an understanding of our own planet and other planets in the galaxy. It therefor only seems only sensible to make efforts to protect this scientific resource. While it may be a little early to declare Cydonia a UNESCO World Heritage Site just yet, the inevitability of increased human activity on Mars in the future may make the establishment of conservation areas a necessity, especially with the advent of commercial space travel and a growing interest in interplanetary resource extraction.
Potential rules governing these parks might include restrictions on what types of spacecraft (if any) are permitted to land there, and what types of vehicles are allowed to travel through the park. An obvious rule would be that no waste must be left in the park. The sterilization of vehicles and spacesuits might also be enforced, preventing microbial contamination. Potential sites for these planetary parks include Cydonia, Hellas Planitia, the Valles Marineris rift valley, and the important polar ice caps.
While our neighbor Mars is our current concern, the idea of planetary parks would surely be applied to other planets and moons in the future too. Io and Europa, for example. We might even decide to declare some planets off-limits to visitors all together.
Parks on Earth-like Planets
All this got me thinking about what ecological conservation might look like if we were to discover a habitable planet and the possibility of colonization were to present itself.
Science fiction tends to suggest that when we discover a new Eden planet, efforts will be made to colonize the new planet as soon as possible. It is generally assumed that by the time we are able to visit any planetary system other than our own, the Earth will be in such a dire state that colonizing a new world will be vitally necessary, or even key to the immediate survival of our race. But consider another perspective; in such a situation the preservation of a new biosphere will be deemed to be as important as, if not somehow more important than, the preservation of our own. The establishment of nature reserves on this new world would obviously be paramount to the protection of this newly discovered wonder, and some people might be of the opinion that the entire planet should be protected from human interference entirely, blocking any and all colonization efforts.
Another issue would be whether or not Earth organisms other than humans should be allowed to be transported to the new world – crops and pharmaceuticals being vital to the survival of human colonists but potentially devastating to the alien ecosystem. Would we adopt a ‘no foodstuffs, organic materials or microbes’ rule at the customs desk? Would such a rule be enforceable in the long-term?
Now, it seems silly to think that we might find a habitable planet and, with the ability to go there, never establish a human presence on its surface. Of course we would. Large-scale colonization would be an inevitability, even if gaining planning consent would be a nightmare. It also seems inevitable to me that environmentalists everywhere would rise up and unite in defense of this pristine wilderness, and that – while the march of progress ultimately cannot be stopped – eco-terrorism might be a serious risk to the safety of the colonists.
So, if you want to colonize a new planet, just remember that travelling unimaginable distances across the cosmos is only the first hurdle you’ll have to face. You’ll also have to fight government bureaucracy, hippies and eco-warriors, and probably some deadly alien microbes too.
Article written by Mark Ball.
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