Planetary Protection, despite how it sounds, does not refer to a Bruce-Willis-style suicide mission to save Earth from an incoming asteroid. However, it is one of those practical space exploration concerns that will only get more important with time.
So, what is planetary protection (PP)?
Think of it as the discipline of preventing the spread of interplanetary biological contamination, either from or to Earth, by astronauts, rovers, and anything else we might send between worlds.
For instance, what good is the search for life on another world if we actually deliver it there, (e.g., bacteria hitching a ride on the outside of a spacecraft) – or worse – if we accidentally contaminate the site and kill the life we’re looking for?
To this end, NASA scientists have been developing the LOCAD-PTS, which stands for Lab-on-a-Chip Application Development-Portable Test System. Much like a Star Trek “tricorder,” the handheld device includes an electronic swab wand and onboard processor designed for the rapid testing of biological substances. In just 15 minutes, an analysis can be performed and contamination results delivered to a waiting astronaut.
A number of field tests have been performed with the system so far, with many actually performed in space on the International Space Station to determine how biological material is transferred from Earth to space, and to monitor the spread of that material while there. Samples were taken both inside and outside the station. Beyond contamination on the exterior of spacecraft being transported to another world, in a closed environment the movement of biological material is also important to ensure astronaut health.
Even better here is the famed NASA technology “trickle-down” effect. The LOCAD system as tested by NASA will also be highly useful on Earth.
Applications of the LOCAD procedures and technology include not only science on Earth, but also detecting lethal viral outbreaks and helping first responders during a potential biological attack.
With the forethought of technology programs like this, not only will all worlds involved be kept more pristine, but any data gathered will be that much more defensible. Here’s hoping that before too much longer, the offspring of the LOCAD will get to see some action off-world.