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Martian 'planetary parks' proposed

By Simon Hooper for CNN

Save the planet: A park scheme would preserve areas of the Martian environment's "beautiful barrenness."
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(CNN) -- Scientists have proposed a scheme to introduce a series of planetary parks on Mars that would see areas of the Red Planet transformed into conservation zones.

British microbiologist Charles Cockell and German astrobiologist Gerda Horneck argue that the environment of Earth's nearest planetary neighbor needs to be protected from human despoliation.

"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 the Space Policy journal.

There has been a recent rush of interest in Mars amid new discoveries suggesting that it could support, or could once have supported, living organisms.

Earlier this month, the journal Nature published the first results from NASA's Mars Explorer Rover mission, which landed two robot geologists on the planet in January.

Scientists described the mission's findings as "the first clear geological and geochemical documentation of water on Mars." Many experts believe water is a necessary precursor of life.

Cockell, who works for the British Antarctic Survey, and Horneck, based at the German Aerospace Centre, claim the Martian landscape should be preserved whether life exists or not, in the same way that areas such as Antarctica or the Grand Canyon are protected on Earth.

"And if Mars has simple microbial life, there are even greater reasons for establishing planetary parks -- to protect that life from human destruction," they add.

Under the proposed scheme, seven areas of Martian landscape would be designated as planetary parks, applying similar rules to those enforced in conservation parks on Earth. No littering -- in the form of abandoned spacecraft parts -- would be allowed and exploration would only be permitted along defined "trails."

Three of the parks would be dedicated to some of the Solar System's most impressive natural wonders.

Olympus Park would include the 26 kilometer-tall Olympus Mons, the largest volcano in the Solar System. The Valles Marineris Park focuses on Valles Marineris, a canyon 4,000 kms long and 600km wide and the Hellas Basin Park marks the site of a meteor crater 2,300km in diameter.

The remaining parks would protect areas of scientific importance, such as the planet's ice cap, or historical significance, such as the site where the pioneering Viking 1 lander touched down in 1976.

Exploration of Mars is controlled by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which opened up space for exploration by all states and allowed for free access to all areas of celestial bodies.

But few countries have ratified the subsequent 1979 Moon Agreement, which sought to regulate the exploration and exploitation of natural resources found on celestial bodies.

Cockell and Horneck suggest, however, that the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs could manage the park scheme.

But Hans Haubold, professor of theoretical astrophysics at the Vienna-based body, described the scheme as "far-fetched."

"It is an interesting idea but definitely not urgent," Haubold told CNN.

"Humankind is making increasing efforts to land spacecraft on other planets, either manned or unmanned. It is a problem that should be dealt with by the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, but member states address the most pressing problems.

"I would not expect member states to ask us to address this problem right now. The most urgent problems are the applications of space science and telemetry to planet Earth."

Mars expert Colin Pillinger, the lead scientist on the recent British Beagle 2 project and an advocate for further missions to search for signs of life on Mars, agreed that a park system was unlikely until scientists had found out more about the planet.

"Planetary protection is important and if one were to discover life on Mars then it would be perfectly sensible to say that there are certain areas that ought to be protected," Pillinger told CNN.

"All spacecraft will be built with that in mind. We are now talking that spacecraft should be sterile rather than just having a low, viable organism count.

"But it's not something we're likely to see in the foreseeable future because everyone is going to want to be able to use their best candidate landing site until we find out more about the planet, particularly while we're still looking for life. I don't think we're quite at the top of our Everest yet."

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