20 December 2012. Issue 64 of the ESPI Perspectives analyses the importance of planetary protection in the future exploration of the Solar System. A major obstacle in this respect seems to be the contested scope of planetary protection. Although the more specific issue of planetary contamination has been addressed by the United Nations and various national space agencies, none of them have developed a holistic and all-embracing concept of planetary protection. As a result, our future space exploration ventures might have undesirable and irreversible side-effects. This Perspective identifies them and proposes solutions to prevent them.
The precautious approach in Solar System exploration so far has enabled us to safeguard scientific interests in the research on cosmic habitability and the quest for extraterrestrial life forms. The approach is expressed by international legislation under the UN framework and the responsibilities of the Committee on Space Research. Practically, space agencies have developed the capabilities necessary to assess and keep the bioburden on spacecrafts limited to what would appear to be acceptable levels. However, the principal focus on planetary contamination has obstructed the conceptualisation of an all-embracing and genuine planetary protection vision and policy. The practice of environmental ethics offers some interesting perspectives in this respect, practical implementation, however, proves difficult. The most pragmatic solution presented takes the concrete or conceivable challenges that await us in the future as a starting point. This results in an analysis of the challenges related to near future missions, sample return missions and human missions to other celestial bodies.