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22nd November 2020

Commitment to planetary protection, the principle of preventing interplanetary contamination from space exploration, has been on the wane since its heyday in the ‘70s, when measures such as baking the Viking landers in custom built ovens increased the cost of the programme by 10%, to the point where Elon Musk's Tesla Roadster was launched into orbit with no planetary protection evaluation.

The COVID-19 pandemic has, however, brought home to us all the dangers of contamination, lack of preparation and above all Elon Musk himself. So it is, that SITP Online offers a timely welcome to astrobiologist Dr. Jennifer Wadsworth for a contaminant free exploration of the continued importance of planetary protection both in space and back here on Earth.

Cambridge Skeptics

Planetary Protection: Guardians of the Galaxy or Lame Science Party-Poopers?
with Dr Jennifer Wadsworth
Thursday, 26th November 2020 at 7:00pm
 
What is planetary protection? Is it even important? Because it sounds like it’s either an incredibly exciting space battle strategy from Independence Day or an exceedingly dull health and safety class that future generations will be subjected to. In reality, it’s kind of both (except that thankfully it’s not from Independence Day). I’m a space scientist who recently finished my postdoc at NASA Ames Research Center, California, where I spent my time developing new ideas to help in the often-overlooked field of planetary protection. I’ll (hopefully) convince you of its importance for our continued exploration of the solar system and how it can even be applied to help solve some of our problems here on Earth.

Jennifer Wadsworth is an astrobiologist who did her PhD at the University of Edinburgh and recently completed her postdoc at NASA Ames Research Center, California. She’s particularly interested in how microbes can survive extreme radiation environments ... or not, as the case may be! She enjoys long walks on the beach and subjecting bacteria to a plethora of lethal conditions. For science.

So, I've Been Thinking...
Something for the Weekend?
 
As we enter a new era of civil, commercial, and public-private partnership planetary exploration, attention has turned to planetary protection. The guidelines for this, laid down in the 50’s and 60’s to ensure that the scientific search for life in our solar system isn’t compromised by forward contamination from Earth and extended in the 70’s to protect the Earth from backward contamination from other planets, are now seen by many as being outdated.

Backward contamination, discussed by the great Carl Sagan himself in Cosmic Connection (1973) and Cosmos (1980), tends to get all the tabloid coverage and yet is generally considered to be the lesser concern. Aerospace engineer Robert Zubrin, a controversial critic of planetary protection, points to the 1,000 pounds of Martian meteorite that strike Earth every year as apparent evidence that if there were microbial life on Mars, which has yet to be confirmed, then it is already here.

Forward contamination, on the other hand, is, with the possible exception of tardigrades on the moon, less sensational and yet the threat it poses to research into the existence of extraterrestrial life is seemingly incontrovertible. What is questioned, by outgoing NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine among others, is whether the concerns of this small subset of the scientific community warrant the additional costs and restriction they place on space exploration and research.

So controversial has planetary protection become that some have called for the term itself, which U.S. State Department lawyer Gabriel Swiney says “sounds like an absolute,” to be replaced by the more nuanced term “harmful contamination.” Others, such as planetary scientists Len Fisk and Meenakshi Wadhwa, while welcoming review, warn against discarding a technical term which is understood and has been forwarded for international agreement.

Chris Gyford, Cambridge Skeptics

Because there is a Planet B
 
There is no planet B, we are told in a seemingly doomed attempt to persuade us to protect the Earth, but this is not true, there are lots of planet B’s, and unless we act imminently, advocates of planetary protection have recently warned, we’re going to end up doing as much, if not more, damage to them as we have already done down here on planet A.

The drawing-up of resource maps by private corporations raises concerns about in-situ resource utilization. Sustainability cannot, it is claimed, be achieved if this is undertaken using existing practices which have contributed to inequality and environmental degradation on Earth. Prevention of this “capitalist extraction” on other worlds is, therefore, called for.

Recommendations from private corporations to reclassify non-polar regions of the moon and Mars as of no scientific value raises concerns around environmental preservation. Respect and preservation of environments should not just be limited to their scientific value but also, the planetary defenders claim, take into account their historical, environmental, aesthetical, cultural and intrinsic value.

A resurgence in race science, including eugenics in Martian colonisation, raises concerns around interactions with potential extraterrestrial life. Moral consideration, acknowledging sovereignty and interconnectivity, must, it is claimed, be extended to both existing and future potential microbial life. While parameters are needed for a first contact which will initially take place between microbiomes.

The recommendations have been dismissed by planetary protection critic Robert Zubrin as an ideologically driven “woke” assault on space exploration, but can perhaps be best viewed as an equal and opposite reaction to the push, mostly from commercial concerns, which has resulted a revision of decades old guidelines seen as costly and excessively restrictive.

Chris Gyford, Cambridge Skeptics

SEE ALSO
 
It's always been fashionable to blame younger generations for society's ills... especially when doing so lets the rest of us off the hook, writes Brian Eggo for The Skeptic.
Dr Natalia Pasternak has received the 2020 Ockham Award for skeptical activism, and Skeptics in the Pub Online receive the Editor's Choice award, reports Michael Marshall for The Skeptic.
French microbiologist Didier Raoult has been given the 2020 Rusty Razor for his promotion of hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 treatment, reports Michael Marshall for The Skeptic.
The techniques developed by affiliate marketers to spread scam products mirrors the way in which conspiracy theories nimbly adapt to spread misinformation, writes Michael Marshall for The Skeptic.
Proponents claim remarkable results from Thought Field Therapy and Emotional Freedom Technique, but the evidence tells a different story, writes Peter Panayi for The Skeptic.
Despite the scare stories, there is no evidence 5G technology causes Covid-19, cancers, or the myriad health scares attributed to it, writes Sean Slater for The Skeptic.
CATCH UP
 
Join nutritonist Pixie Turner for a talk on food and social media and Michael Marshall for the Ockham Awards 2020 in an SITP Online extrazaganza. This event, which was streamed live on 19th November 2020, is now available for catch up on the SitP Online YouTube channel.
Join physicist Dr. Steve Barrett to discuss if there are any UFO images that require an extraterrestrial explanation. This talk, which was streamed live on 12th November 2020, is now available for catch up on the SitP Online YouTube channel.
Join Undercover Economist and host of BBC Radio 4’s More or Less podcast Tim Harford to learn his ten rules for thinking differently about numbers. This talk, which was streamed live on 5th November 2020, is now available for catch up on the SitP Online YouTube channel.
Join psychology professors Richard Wiseman and Chris French for a Halloween discussion on apparitional experiences. This talk, which was streamed live on 31st October 2020, is now available for catch up on the SitP Online YouTube channel.
Join naturopath turned critic Britt Hermes for this Halloween-themed talk on the horrors and spooky practices of her former profession. This talk, which was streamed live on 29th October 2020, is now available for catch up on the SitP Online YouTube channel.
Join philosopher Aaron Rabinowitz to find out why skeptics should believe that ethics is real and free will is not. This talk, which was streamed live on 22nd October 2020, is now available for catch up on the SitP Online YouTube channel.
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