Protecting the planets

Protecting planets High tech equipment sterilized by modern methods – here a camera from Beagle 2 sterilised by hydrogen peroxide plasma

Dr Simeon Barber, Professor Colin Pillinger FRS, Dr Judith Pillinger and Professor Ian Wright, Planetary and Space Sciences Research Institute, Open University
Professor Richard Crowther, Rutherford Appleton Laboratory
and colleagues from University of Leicester, European Space Agency, EADS Astrium and SEA

A space age challenge to prevent cross contamination between planets 

Scientists and engineers from many areas of the UK space exploration community are researching how to prevent the transport of micro-organisms around the Solar System.
Since the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, orbited the Earth in 1957, the transfer of micro-organisms from Earth to space and vice-versa must have occurred. There is, however, a strict code of practice to prevent biological contamination of the planets and other Solar System bodies from Earth, and also to protect our own planet from any potentially hazardous material that could brought back on a returned sample mission. ‘Planetary protection’ was formalised in the UN Outer Space Treaty and is administered by COSPAR (Committee on Space Research).

As the search for evidence of life beyond Earth is of enormous scientific and public interest, we must continue to minimise the risks of cross-contamination. Scientists do not want to send a spacecraft to Mars taking with it terrestrial bacteria as not only might false positives be obtained, but also future generations of experiments could be jeopardised as a result. The research is not only academic, but gives scientists insights into how to prevent contamination on Earth as well as in space.

“Our work explores the sterilisation processes of sophisticated components and modern materials to make space missions as safe as possible for Earth as well as the rest of the Solar System,” says Dr Judith Pillinger from the Planetary and Space Sciences Research Institute. “This work could also help us with issues on Earth from preventing contamination of pristine environments like Antarctic sub-surface lakes, to ensuring instruments in an operating theatre are sterile.”

Research institutions involved in planetary protection include the Planetary and Space Sciences Research Institute of the Open University, Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, Universities of Leicester and Cranfield, several companies from the UK space sector and the European Space Agency.