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The future of the COSPAR Planetary Protection Guidelines: Space governance and astrobiology

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  • Full or part time
    Prof S Lee
  • Application Deadline
    No more applications being accepted
  • Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

This project will examine the issue of planetary protection and the way in which the space governance framework can best deal with the challenges facing human exploration of other planets.

Project Highlights:
• Evaluating the role of COSPAR planetary protection guidelines as a tool of space governance;
• Enhancing the way in which laws, guidelines and best practice can effectively protect pristine environments;
• Developing regulations and guidance models to maximise the balance between human exploration and protecting pristine extra-terrestrial environments.


Planetary protection is an area that has been the subject of much discussion. Consensus amongst the scientific community has emerged via the Committee for Space Research (COSPAR), which has developed a Planetary Protection policy regarding the different levels of protection to be afforded to other planets and to any samples returned to Earth.

Despite the prevalence of these guidelines, there have been several occasions where missions have failed to meet the COSPAR standards. Notwithstanding their wide acceptance, they do not have the binding force of international law and there is by no means universally enforced.

This project will evaluate the COSPAR guidelines and pose a number of questions; do they have a place within the future of space governance? Should they be given the force of law as a means of embedding the ethics of planetary protection? The ramifications of a relaxation of the guidelines is not yet known.

Now that exploration of space is being driven by factors other than a race to showcase competing ideologies, there exists an opportunity for dialogue to ensure an orderly and equitable exploration of space. This 2 Figure 1: NASA Curiosity rover (credit NASA) project will seek to critically evaluate the way in which COSPAR guidelines can evolve and work within ambitious future projects. The study will aim to model a governance solution that will provide all stakeholders with the flexibility to explore planets other than Earth. It would also ensure that private companies seeking to mine celestial bodies do not sidestep voluntary guidelines in the hunt for profit.

Eligibility and Requirements

E3 studentships are available to UK and EU applicants. A first degree at grade 2:1 or equivalent in a relevant science subject is required. A Masters degree (MSc or integrated MSci) or equivalent experience is desirable.

How to apply

We strongly advise you to contact the lead supervisor of the project(s) that interests you before submitting an application. The application process requires you to send an email to the following email address:

[Email Address Removed]

Please attach the following items to your email:
(1) a cover letter outlining why the project is of interest and how your skills match those required,
(2) your CV and contact details of 3 academic references,
(3) a E3 application form, and
(4) a completed Home OU application form (if you are resident in the UK or European Economic Area).

Closing date for applications: 30th September 2019 at (12pm, noon)

Interviews will take place between 21st and 28th October 2019, anticipated start date is 1st February 2020.

We promote diversity in employment and welcome applications from all sections of the community, particularly from groups that are otherwise underrepresented in academic communities.

Funding Notes

Astrobiology OU has recently been awarded £6.7 million by Research England to develop their capacity. This will allow the group to expand to bring together expertise in technology, international development and governance to address the scientific and governance challenges associated with the advancement of astrobiology and related space exploration missions. The funding for these studentships comes from this grant and covers a 3 year stipend, and a £8000 stipend for research and travel. The student will also benefit from a number of career development opportunities organized for all members of the group.

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