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Global concern

Memorial scientist calls on world to act on conserving space sites


By Kelly Foss

A scientific study led by Memorial University has concluded global action is required to protect a number of significant geological features on Mars, the moon and other planets and celestial bodies.

Framed by the Earth’s horizon and airglow, the full moon floats in the blackness of space.
Photo: NASA

The paper, which was released today in Acta Astronautica, a publication of the International Academy of Austronautics, was co-authored by Dr. Jack Matthews, a post-doctoral fellow in Memorial’s Department of Earth Sciences, Faculty of Science, and research fellow at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, and Dr. Sean McMahon of the U.K. Centre for Astrobiology at the University of Edinburgh.

Growing threat

As nations and private companies increasingly explore and develop outer space, there is a growing threat to extraterrestrial environments. The research suggests a new global agreement is needed to protect the most important sites before it’s too late.

“The solar system is full of amazing sites of scientific and historic importance, as well as natural beauty,” said Dr. Matthews.

This self-portrait of NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover shows the vehicle on Vera Rubin Ridge.
Photo: NASA

“The images from NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover have shown how a photo taken millions of miles away can still evoke the wonder of the natural world. It may be a few years before we go to Mars, but these international agreements take time. We’re trying to start a conversation now, so sites can be protected before missions are planned that put them at risk.”


The authors argue that with so many celestial bodies being dominated by rock formations rather than life or water, the existing theory and practice of “geoconservation” should be extended from Earth to the rest of the solar system.

Geoconservation has already led to the protection of geological sites around the world, including the Mistaken Point UNESCO World Heritage site in Newfoundland and Labrador, home to fossils of the oldest large, complex organisms known to science.

“The solar system holds billions of years’ worth of geological heritage, from ancient river valleys on Mars to footprints on the moon,” said Dr. McMahon. “We owe it to future generations not to squander their inheritance.”

This view from the mast camera on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover shows an outcrop with finely layered rocks within the Murray Buttes region on lower Mount Sharp.
Photo: NASA

Recognize and conserve

The study outlines how a new international agreement and what they name “exogeoconservation” could be based on the existing Antarctic Treaty System.

Drs. Matthews and McMahon are keen to stress the proposed strategy wouldn’t outlaw exploration and resource extraction, but rather recognize and conserve the most important features seen in the solar system, for the good of science and society.

“For over a hundred years, we’ve been protecting important sites and stunning landscapes on Earth,” said Dr. Matthews. “As we move into an increasingly exciting time for space travel, we must ensure these values are transferred to the new worlds we visit.”

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