NASA has a top-tier job opening for a Planetary Protection Officer, a position you’ve likely never heard of and that might, at first glance, sound like something of a joke. The position, however, dates back to the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, and NASA is one of just two space agencies to have a full-time position dedicated to the role (the ESA also has a full time PPO).
So what does a PPO actually do? Here’s how NASA’s job posting describes the position, which pays from $124,400 to $187,000:
Planetary protection is concerned with the avoidance of organic-constituent and biological contamination in human and robotic space exploration. NASA maintains policies for planetary protection applicable to all space flight missions that may intentionally or unintentionally carry Earth organisms and organic constituents to the planets or other solar system bodies, and any mission employing spacecraft, which are [i]ntended to return to Earth and its biosphere with samples from extraterrestrial targets of exploration. This policy is based on federal requirements and international treaties and agreements.
In other words: The PPO makes certain that Earth is not contaminated by extraterrestrial life forms that might arrive via meteorite or be deliberately brought back to Earth for further analysis. At the same time, it ensures that the vehicles and satellites we send off-planet are as “clean” as possible, to limit the chance of introducing our own life forms into the ecosystem of another planet. This means the PPO is effectively involved in many of the considerations that go into planning a remote exploratory mission, from ensuring that the vehicles on the launch pad have been sterilized (or as close as is plausible) to planning the route the spacecraft will take.
This self-portrait of NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover shows the vehicle at the “Big Sky” site, where its drill collected the mission’s fifth taste of Mount Sharp. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
NASA has good reason to be careful. The last thing we would want is to detect life somewhere in the solar system, only to find that it was something from Earth that had managed to survive on a different moon or planet. This isn’t particularly fanciful; there are microbes on our own planet that survive in conditions vastly different from those that typify Earth’s surface. It is therefore not crazy to think that some microbes from our own planet could take root and prosper if they encountered similar conditions elsewhere. Similarly, alien microbial life could potentially take root here (and some have argued that life on Earth was transplanted here from elsewhere, a theory known as panspermia).
If you’ve got the appropriate chops to apply for the position, it’s linked above. NASA’s FAQ about the post is here. It’s a temporary role that’s typically three years long, with an option for an additional two years.