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The United Nations of Space
Roger Bonnet
Roger Bonnet discusses the role of COSPAR in international space research collaboration and how its Panel on Planetary Protection influences astrobiology missions.

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Summary: COSPAR - The Committee on Space Research - might be described as the United Nations of space research and collaboration. Astrobiology Magazine talks to its president, Roger Bonnet, about COSPAR's international role; its Panel on Planetary Protection, and the enforcement of their planetary protection rules for extra-terrestrial exploration.

The United Nations of Space
                            Interview with Roger Bonnet

Roger Bonnet, president of COSPAR and director of the International Space Sciences Institute in Bern, Switzerland.
Countries used to race for space, now they collaborate. Since 1958, COSPAR - The Committee on Space Research - has played its part as the scientific United Nations of space research. Astrobiology Magazine talks to its president, Roger Bonnet, about COSPAR's international role; its Panel on Planetary Protection, and the enforcement of their planetary protection rules for extra-terrestrial exploration.

Astrobiology Magazine (AM): What is COSPAR?

Roger Bonnet (RB) : COSPAR is an institution that fosters communication between scientists of different countries. Currently COSPAR counts as members 44 countries; Egypt and Nigeria were the most recent countries to join. These countries all send scientists to COSPAR meetings, but scientists from non-member countries can also participate in our big assemblies. We meet every two years in different parts of the world. Our last meeting was in July 2006 in Beijing and our next meeting will be in 2008 in Montreal.

AM:How is COSPAR structured and how does this structure relate to the field of astrobiology?

RB:COSPAR is divided into eight different commissions. The ones that relate to astrobiology are Commission E, which includes astronomy and astrophysics, Commission B, which deals with planets and the solar system, and Commission F, which is specific to the life sciences. We also have a Panel on Planetary Protection.

AM: How did COSPAR come into existence?

In 1976, NASA's two Viking landers bumped down on the surface of Mars and one type of bacterium were known to have survived Viking's heat treatment.
Source: Nature
Image credit: NASA/JPL

RB: The idea of creating an organization like COSPAR came over 50 years ago, just after the launch of the first Earth satellite, Sputnik 1. This event started the Space Era and was marked by a competition between the US and the Soviet Union to essentially dominate space, particularly military space. It was clear that an scientific organization as independent as possible from politics and governments was needed. At the beginning there was a clear mandate for COSPAR to open the dialog between East Block scientists and scientists of the rest of the world, who were mainly from the US.

AM: Would you say that COSPAR functions as the United Nations of space research and collaboration?

RB: Yes, but with much less bureaucracy! So I guess that would make me the Kofi Annan of the scientific UN. (laughs)

AM:Aside from concerning itself with scientific issues, are there instances when political issues within the global space science community crop up which COSPAR is forced to address?

RB: Yes, because space is usually a big spender of money, particularly in the US, and when you spend a lot of money you immediately become political. But space research and exploration also are inherently political because of their high visibility. These events include successes like landing a man on the Moon, or putting a probe on Titan. They also include failures like losing a satellite, or astronauts being killed during a mission. Fortunately these failures don’t happen very often, but the media tends to cover the failures more often than the successes.

COSPAR addresses some political initiatives like space exploration -- for example, the new lunar program the President of the US announced a couple of years ago. At the last assembly in Beijing, we organized a round table discussion of all the space agencies attending to address this issue. NASA was present, ESA was present, and the other main space agencies of the world were present.

Liquid methane lakes on Saturn's moon, Titan. Photographed by Cassini-Huygens mission.

AM: When this new US exploration program called “Moon to Mars” was announced, was COSPAR consulted?

RB: No, but now COSPAR is involved because some scientists are asking us to organize an international collaboration to address the science that can be done within the framework of this initiative. China, India, Europe, the US, and Japan are all now planning missions to the Moon. When money is scarce it is better to join forces than to compete. It is logical that COSPAR would organize this cooperation from the scientific point of view in order to join the forces of the international community.

The scientists have proposed a scenario for cooperation, and this is now in the hands of the different space agencies. They will discuss amongst themselves whether or not they will accept the terms of this scenario. There is now an established dialogue.

AM: Since China is not politically in open dialogue with the US, is COSPAR fostering communication between the East and the West?

RB: Yes, but we are talking about scientific cooperation only, not political cooperation. I am acting as a mediator but only in trying to cope with the needs of the scientists. In 1982 an inter-agency working group for space science was established for cooperation between the US, Europe, Japan, and Russia in the exploration of Haley’s Comet. COSPAR acted as a triggering mechanism, and after that the agencies took over.

Water ice in crater at Martian north pole . Photographed by Mars Express
Credit: ESA

AM: Let’s turn now to recent news about water on Mars and the considerations and implications those findings bring to manned space exploration of that planet -- in particular, with regard to planetary protection. What will COSPAR’s role be in trying to coordinate exploration around the mandate that planets be explored in the safest way possible in order to protect the environment?

RB: Well, water was found a long time ago on Mars. We knew liquid water existed on Mars in the past, and still may exist underground. What was discovered more recently was that water pored out of Mars within the last few years and has flowed down the sides of a crater. This is an absolutely fantastic discovery

AM: But they don’t know if the flow was liquid or ice?

RB: Perhaps it was some kind of permafrost, some kind of muddy consistency that flowed down. Whether it is more liquid or sublimated we don’t know. But it is a very important point that recently there has been some kind of material flowing from the slope of the crater which resembles water. It is stunning and marvelous!

AM: In light of this discovery, what is the onus now on COSPAR to encourage individual countries to take extra care with planetary protection measures?

RB: COSPAR has a special panel on planetary protection. John Rummel, who is now head of astrobiology at NASA , is the chairman. This panel has established some fundamental directives to prevent the export and transfer of terrestrial life, which would eliminate the possibility of finding pristine life on these bodies. Mars is clearly the planet where we send the largest number of spacecraft these days, and they have to go through the establishment of these rules and restrict the spacecraft to these rules.

AM: But not all spacecraft, including the most recent Mars rovers, were sent there under absolutely sterile conditions, were they?

RB: No, but you have several criteria which, depending upon the type of place you go or the science you do, one must adhere to. Some of them are sterilized to the point where the rules say they should be. If you send astronauts or you send samples for return missions to Mars and you bring materials back from Mars, you could contaminate the Earth with Martians! If you plan to send human beings to Mars, which is the plan of Europe and the US several decades from now, you must be sure that they come back alive and not contaminated by strange organisms or diseases. So you must make sure that Mars is a completely sterile planet and that there is no danger of contamination. If it is not a sterile planet, humans must analyze the forms of life which may have been discovered there, and determine whether or not they are dangerous for humankind. The problem is that on Mars, if life exists or has existed, it is most certainly not spread uniformly over the planet. There may be pockets of life here or there with nothing in between. So if you land in between and you don’t find anything, you cannot certify that life doesn’t exist on Mars.

One of the strategies is to find instrumentation, technologies, or approaches which would allow you to find the global distribution of life -- like methane emissions or differences in surface temperature. Nobody has any strong ideas on how to do this. But certainly having the global view on the distribution of the possible life forms on Mars is an important thing to address in the future. It is the role of COSPAR to organize symposia where these problems and issues are discussed.

AM: : Do you anticipate much dissent among the groups as to how to proceed? For instance, is there the possibility of a rogue agency acting out of line? And if so, could COSPAR pull them back into compliance?

RB: Certainly some of the planetary protection rules have become very expensive, so agencies have had a tendency to try to reduce the guidelines to make their implementation as cheap as possible, some to the point where they may no longer adhere to the rules. But so far all the probes that have been sent have been sterilized to a certain degree. Mars Express and Beagle II (which crashed onto the surface of Mars) were sterilized according to the criteria established by COSPAR. But the agencies themselves are responsible for implementing that.

AM: So COSPAR can have influence but not ultimate enforcing power?

RB: No, we don’t have guns and bullets to enforce these things. We are not the Interpol of space agencies. But we certainly hope that we can help set standards by which all space agencies can agree to follow.