That’s right, you read that right – NASA is hiring a planetary protection officer. Business Insider just reported that the government agency has a job opening to install someone whose main charge is to defend us from alien “invasion.” Well, it is more about protecting Earth from alien contamination but the job title sounds entertaining.
Is NASA finally coming clean about the existence of the little green men everyone is afraid of? Not so much. In fact, the planetary protection officer’s job is to prevent extraterrestrial microbes from contaminating Earth. And vice versa: he or she will also have the mission to protect other planets from us. The position sure sounds exciting, and it pays well: between $124,406 and $187,000 a year, plus benefits.
This job was created in 1967 after the signing of the Outer Space Treaty by the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and several other countries. The treaty implied that the parties should use outer space only for peaceful purposes that would not endanger our planet in any way. Catharine Conley is NASA’s current planetary protection officer. (In full disclosure, it’s HER job that is being advertised, sort of. The position is being moved to a different department and it’s unclear whether she is gunning to reclaim her spot.)
In March, Business Insider interviewed Conley to learn more about her specific assignments. As scientists are trying to find potentially habitable planets such as Mars; Jupiter’s moons, Europa and Ganymede; Saturn’s moon, Enceladus and Pluto – humans and robots are sent out to explore them and collect extraterrestrial elements. By doing so, NASA risks contaminating these planets, considering humans and robots carry with them a certain amount of bacteria. Plus, how would scientists determine whether organisms brought back to Earth were collected on another planet or are actually terrestrial and just hitched a round trip to and from space?
And it goes the other way around. Conley said, “The phrase that we use is ‘Break the chain of contact with Mars.’” Indeed, once Martian samples – or any extraterrestrial samples – land on Earth, they might contain microbes that could compromise our blue planet. That’s when the officer sets up a protocol to make sure the equipment is not contaminated.
However, space missions are still infrequent and Conley confessed that a typical workday is more likely to involve reading emails and studies rather than handling difficult procedures to reduce risks that contaminate Earth.
If you are interested, you will have to be available for at least three years witha possible extension of up to five years. Of course, NASA wants the future planetary protection officer to have an advanced degree in physical science, engineering or mathematics. Applications will be accepted until August 14!