Scientists propose conservation parks on Mars
International agreement could preserve important sites.
Next time you go for a stroll on Mars, be sure you don't leave any litter behind. A plan to keep parts of the red planet in their pristine state could see seven areas turned into 'planetary parks', regulated just like national parks here on Earth.
The scheme has been proposed by Charles Cockell, a microbiologist for the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge, and Gerda Horneck, an astrobiologist from the German Aerospace Centre in Cologne, Germany.
"It is the right of every person to stand and stare across the beautiful barrenness and desolation of the Martian surface without having to endure the eyesore of pieces of crashed spacecraft scattered across the landscape," they write in the latest edition of Space Policy.
Although scientists have found no life on Mars, Cockell and Horneck point out that many national parks on Earth are protected partly for their geological interest and natural beauty, such as the Grand Canyon and Antarctica. "And if Mars has simple microbial life, there are even greater reasons for establishing planetary parks - to protect that life from human destruction," they write.
"We've already crashed unmanned spacecraft there - Mars Polar Lander and possibly Beagle 2 - so there's already an environmental issue," Cockell told firstname.lastname@example.org. He says the crashes are as irresponsible as dropping robots over the Antarctic.
A place for parks
Cockell and Horneck have mapped out seven different areas for conservation that contain representative features of the martian landscape.
The Polar Park would protect the planet's ice cap for biological studies, while Olympus Park would encompass the Solar System's largest volcano, Olympus Mons, to prevent future mountaineers despoiling it, as has happened with Mount Everest.
Others parks would cover desert areas, impressive meteorite craters and the landing sites of the Viking 1 and Mars Pathfinder spacecraft.
The scientists are keen to see these areas explored, but say that the environmental impact of human activity must be limited. They suggest rules such as "no spacecraft parts to be left in the park", and would allow access only along predefined routes, like hiking trails in terrestrial parks.
Other scientists have already proposed making the Apollo 11 landing site a world heritage site, "but no one has really suggested putting this together into a single parks system," says Cockell. He adds that the system could work just as well on the Moon.
The UN Office for Outer Space Affairs in Vienna, Austria, would be best placed to administer the parks, he says, although he has not contacted them about the idea. They already oversee planetary protection regulations that limit the number of spores allowed on a Mars lander. But the sole purpose of this is to stop experiments looking for life becoming contaminated, says Cockell. "There's no sense of any greater environmental protection."
"I think it's a good idea," says Ian Crawford, a planetary geologist at University College London. "Having thousands of people on Mars is centuries in the future, but even an improperly sterilised robot on Mars could have an impact."
However, establishing the parks would present an enormous challenge for international law. Many spacefaring nations such as the United States, Russia and China have not even signed up to the existing UN Outer Space Treaty, which seeks to make outer space "the province of all mankind".
"In my personal opinion, [planetary parks are] a little far-fetched," says Hans Haubold, a theoretical astrophysicist and programme officer at the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs. The office would not consider the scheme until it was proposed by a UN member state, he explains, "and I would not expect such a request in the near future."
But Cockell argues that if a planetary parks system were in place, it would free up the rest of the planet for exploitation and claim-staking, which might encourage these nations to sign up to the system.