NASA to hire planetary protection officer

Position will play important role in upcoming solar system missions.
By Laurel Kornfeld | Aug 03, 2017
NASA is seeking a Planetary Protection Officer (PPO) whose function will be to assure spacecraft traveling to other worlds have been sterilized and prevent the Earth from being contaminated by extra-terrestrial microbes transported here through meteorites or by sample-return missions.

A high-level agency position, the job is connected to the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. It pays between $124,400 and $187,000 annually.

Applicants must either have degrees in physical science, engineering, or mathematics or a combination of education and experience that includes a minimum of 24 semester hours in physical science or related engineering.

Proper sterilization of robotic spacecraft is crucial in order to avoid accidentally contaminating potentially habitable worlds such as Europa, Titan, or Enceladus, with microbes from Earth.

Such contamination could make it impossible for scientists to determine whether microbial life found on another world is indigenous to that world or was brought from Earth by a spacecraft.

Additionally, microbes from Earth could be harmful or even deadly to any indigenous life on another world.

Sterilization is a comprehensive process that involves making sure vehicles on launch pads are completely clean and planning the routes of robotic probes.

In some cases, such as that of the Cassini Saturn orbiter, a spacecraft is crashed onto a gas giant planet to prevent any potentially surviving microbes on board from accidentally taking root on moons that may be habitable.

Some microbes on Earth are capable of surviving the harsh conditions on other planets. A small colony of strep bacteria was found on Surveyor 3, an uncrewed spacecraft that had landed on the Moon during the 1960s and was returned two-and-a-half years later by Apollo 12 astronauts.

A subsequent investigation found that the camera on board Surveyor was contaminated by microbes in the clean room where the probe was supposed to be sterilized.

With the upcoming Mars Sample Return Mission, which will robotically collect samples of Martian soil and return them to Earth for analysis, developing better standards for clean rooms will be a top priority.

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