Much of the challenge of communicating scientific concepts to the public at-large comes in attempting to find ways to make ideas easily digestible.
When talking about human space exploration, the possibility of finding extraterrestrial life, or the recovery of cultural artifacts from non-terrestrial sources, the concept of planetary protection is key. Basically, planetary protection stresses the importance of working to prevent the spread of biological contamination between worlds.
However, for those who are unfamiliar or who would prefer a succinct example to a rehash of the technical definition, allow me to take a stab at an explanation less esoteric: Planetary Protection in terms of Michael Crichton and H. G. Wells.
As arguably two of the most well-known science fiction authors of the 20th Century, it seems only fitting that each penned a story that together provide planetary protection’s two worst-case scenarios. [[PLOT SPOILER ALERT]]
In Crichton’s “The Andromeda Strain,” a returning military satellite inadvertently carries with it an extraterrestrial pathogen, with fatal consequences for a retrieval team as well as a small Arizona town. This is a prime example of the dangers of returning to Earth from an extraterrestrial environment, and why planetary protection measures are important for us.
On the other side of the coin, in H. G. Wells’s “The War of the Worlds,” invading extraterrestrials, despite demonstrating an extreme level of technological advancement, are ultimately defeated by terrestrial pathogens due to their lack of planetary protection measures.
So, in short, (using Wells and Crichton as guideposts,) planetary protection is intended to prevent:
- our being harmed by alien bugs
- potential aliens from being harmed by our bugs.
To the point, the last thing we want to do is go to Mars searching for life, only to inadvertently kill it, or worse, track it back home so that it wreaks havoc on our ecosystem.
That’s it. You can say it all between The War of the Worlds and The Andromeda Strain. Planetary protection in a nutshell.