International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

What is Interplanetary Contamination?


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Interplanetary Contamination

Mains level : Interplanetary Contamination

As ambitious space missions are proliferating, along with advances in commercial space flight, astrobiologists have expressed concerns about possible ‘interplanetary contamination’.

A statements based question can be expected from the two types of interplanetary contamination.

What is Interplanetary Contamination?

  • Interplanetary contamination refers to biological contamination of a planetary body by a space probe or spacecraft, either deliberate or unintentional.
  • There are two types of interplanetary contamination:
  1. Forward contamination is the transfer of life and other forms of contamination from Earth to another celestial body.
  2. Back contamination is the introduction of extraterrestrial organisms and other forms of contamination into Earth’s biosphere. It also covers infection of humans and human habitats in space and on other celestial bodies by extraterrestrial organisms, if such habitats exist.
  • The main focus is on microbial life and on potentially invasive species.
  • Non-biological forms of contamination have also been considered, including contamination of sensitive deposits (such as lunar polar ice deposits) of scientific interest.

Are there any mechanisms to prevent such contaminations?

  • Current space missions are governed by the Outer Space Treaty and the COSPAR (Committee on Space Research) guidelines for planetary protection.
  • Forward contamination is prevented primarily by sterilizing the spacecraft.
  • According to NASA, the guidelines have had far-reaching implications on human spacecraft design, operational procedures, and overall mission structure.

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