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Scientists call for protection of geological, historical sites on other planets

A Canadian scientist is calling for action to protect significant geological and historical features on the moon, Mars, and other planets.

Jack Matthews, of Memorial University of Newfoundland, says as nations and private companies increasingly explore and develop outer space, there’s a growing threat to extraterrestrial environments.

“A global agreement to protect the most important sites is needed before it’s too late,” he said Tuesday in an interview from Oxford, England.

Matthews, a post-doctoral fellow in Memorial’s Department of Earth Sciences, and Sean McMahon of the U.K. Centre for Astrobiology have just published a paper on the topic.

“The solar system holds billions of years’ worth of geological heritage,” said McMahon. “We owe it to future generations not to squander their inheritance.”

Matthews said that includes historical and cultural sites, including the Apollo 11 lunar landing site.

“There lies the first footprints ever made by a human on another celestial body. That footprint still exists there because there is no atmosphere on the moon, therefore there isn’t any wind. So that dusty footprint is still there, preserved on the surface of the moon.”

Matthews said with a number of countries and private companies actively preparing to send humans beyond Earth, now is the time to have the discussion and debate.

SpaceX, a private American company founded by Elon Musk, has a goal to send its first cargo mission to Mars in 2022.

The People’s Republic of China has initiated a manned spaceflight program, while the European Union, Japan, and India have also planned future crewed space missions.

The paper was released Tuesday in “Acta Astronautica,” a publication of the International Academy of Austronautics.

Matthews said their proposal wouldn’t stand in the way of exploration or resource development, but would protect places like Valles Marineris — known as the Mars version of the Grand Canyon.

“We wish to conserve very specific, important sites, that represent something either cultural or historic or educational or scientific, or even just aesthetic. There are wonderful landscapes that we have seen in photographs from the Curiosity rover and other rovers, that if they were on Earth would no doubt be national parks,” he said.

It’s expected that explorers to other planets will need to mine or otherwise extract the resources needed to provide water and rocket fuel for the return home, for habitation, or to continue further into the solar system.

Matthews said just because we can’t go to those sites at the moment doesn’t make them less worthy of protection.

He said the countries of the world came together to protect Antarctica through the Antarctic Treaty, and the same could be done to protect sites in space, and he hopes their paper will start the discussion.

Matthews said he envisions a governing body could be within or parallel to the United Nations.

He said existing protocols used to protect geological heritage on Earth could be used on other planets in what he’s calling exogeoconservation.

Matthews said it could take years to produce an agreement, so discussion and debate needs to start now.

Kevin Bissett, The Canadian Press

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