Space travel is exciting and inspiring but it does not come without dangers. One such danger, especially in these days, is the fact that traveling to space could result in alien contamination here on Earth. Now, a new report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine examines the possibilities of such an event.
“I have heard from some colleagues in the human spaceflight area that they can see how, in the current environment, the general public could become more concerned about bringing back some alien microbe, virus or contamination,” told Stanford News Scott Hubbard, an adjunct professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford University who is also the former director of NASA Ames and the first Mars program director.
Hubbard gave an in-depth interview to Stanford News where he explained the report's findings. He began by describing what "planetary protection" refers to.
"Even before Sputnik, there were scientific meetings that discussed the potential for space exploration to a) carry earthly microbes to other worlds, thereby confusing or contaminating future scientific investigations, or b) return alien life to Earth and thus possibly threaten our own biosphere," said Hubbard.
Hubbard went on to say that it's time for us to prepare for emerging commercial/entrepreneurial space activities in deep space as humans landing on Mars is becoming ever more realistic. The report recommends the implementation of a Martian “exploration zone” where contamination can be controlled and thus have little effect.
Furthermore, to reduce the bioburden on aircraft, Hubbard proposes a "combinations of chemical cleaning, heat sterilization, applying reduction credit for time spent in the highly sterilizing space radiation environment and clever mechanical systems." He also recommends the use of robots as assistants as they can be cleaned more effectively than humans.
Finally, Hubbard explains measures that NASA can take to guard against accidental biological contamination for its planned Martian Sample Return (MSR) mission and reveals how the report would have been written if it were written post the current pandemic.