H.G. Wells, Crichton, and Planetary Protection

22 02 2012

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.

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Dealing with space contamination

24 08 2010

Operation of LOCAD-PTS swabbing unit on the palm of a NASA spacesuit during simulated activities at Meteor Crater, Arizona; 09/2005. Credit: Dr. Jake Maule.

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.

NASA Astronaut Sunita Williams using the LOCAD aboard the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

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.








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