NASA’s exploits have a two-fold purpose: national defense and space exploration. The same holds true today with the inception of its newest office and position. In the last week of July 2017, NASA announced its newest position, Planetary Protection Officer, with applications due in mid-August. Nearly 60 years ago, NASA’s inception in October 1958 began with preamble: “An Act to provide for research into the problems of flight within and outside the Earth's atmosphere, and for other purposes."
Planetary Protection Office
NASA’s planetary protection office has its roots in agreements made during the 1967 United Nations “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and the Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Bodies.” The idea was that all countries who participated were to conduct exploration of cosmic bodies in a manner that avoids harmful contamination. NASA’s Planetary Protection Office took that a step further: to protect other galactic bodies, such as planets, moons, asteroids, comets from contamination by Earth life and to protect the Earth from contamination by alien life forms.
Alien Life Forms
When NASA mentions alien life forms, little gray men with enlarged heads and eyes are the first images that leap to mind. But alien life forms also mean bacteria or viruses that could have a deadly effect on nature and human life. Just like in the days of early Spanish explorers to the new world, many indigenous peoples died from contact with European viruses and diseases, virtually unknown in the Americas.
The Importance of Planetary Protection
- Prevent contamination that obscures NASA’s ability to study other worlds
- To maintain the ability to study cosmic bodies in their natural states
- Prevent the pollution that would keep us from finding alien life, if it exists, and to
- Take precautions to protect Earth’s biosphere in case NASA does discover alien life.
The OPP defines the objectives for individual space exploration missions based on the available scientific data and advice from NASA, international space exploration guidelines and the Space Studies Board. For categorization purposes, each mission is defined by its planned encounter type, such as:
- planetary body
Planetary Protection Mission Categories
- Planetary body type
- Target destinations or locations and
- Mission type and mission categories
A Visit to Mars
- Type I where no protections are needed
- Type II possible origins of pre-life or life conditions with remote chance of contamination
- Type III in which there exists a significant chance of contamination
- Type IV Chances of contamination that might jeopardize future “biological exploration"
- Type V Defines the situation where the spacecraft returns to Earth into two further subcategories: unrestricted and restricted Earth returns
When NASA astronauts and scientists go on a mission to visit a planetary body, such as Mars, for example, they are the aliens invading that location. The same holds true for when they return bringing back with them samples of cellular life, bacteria or even rocks. While NASA isn’t expecting an alien invasion any time soon, setting stringent protections can prevent unmitigated disasters from occurring both here on Earth and elsewhere in space.
About the Author
As a journalist and editor for several years, Laurie Brenner has covered many topics in her writings, but science is one of her first loves. Her stint as Manager of the California State Mining and Mineral Museum in California's gold country served to deepen her interest in science which she now fulfills by writing for online science websites. Brenner is also a published sci-fi author. She graduated from San Diego's Coleman College in 1972.