Try Topic’s new streaming service for free.

Topic is a First Look Media company

How NASA Protects the Universe from Earthlings

How NASA Protects the Universe from Earthlings

On other planets, the aliens are... us.

THIS PAST WEEK SAW THE CHANGING OF THE GUARD at one of NASA’s most interesting, yet least-understood divisions when Dr. Lisa Pratt, an astrobiologist at the University of Indiana, took over from Dr. Catherine Conley as the National Aeronautic Space Agency’s Planetary Protection Officer.

Though Conley had filled the role since 2006, the job description won’t change that much: Planetary Protection Officers (there is just one, mind you) are tasked with three main objectives, per the NASA website:

- Preserving our ability to study other worlds as they exist in their natural states;

- Avoiding the biological contamination of explored environments that may obscure our ability to find life elsewhere – if it exists; and

- To ensure that we take prudent precautions to protect Earth’s biosphere in case life does exist elsewhere.

Try our new streaming service for free.
No algorithms. Just the best television + film hand-picked from around the globe.

In other words, to consider how life forms outside Earth will affect our environment—and to figure out how to contain this planet's messy contents.The idea of interplanetary contamination was first raised at an astronautical conference in Rome in 1956, a year before Sputnik was launched into and out of the Earth's atmosphere. This led to the creation of recommendations to explore space with as clean and sterile equipment as possible by an international space body, Committee on Space Research (COSPAR), two years later.

A member of the Lockheed Martin Assembly, Test, and Launch Operations (ATLO) team observes the installation of the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) instrument onto the science deck of InSight. The deck carries the main instruments and mission-critical instruments, including HP3, to execute the mission. (What is the SEIS instrument? It's a machine that will monitor seismic activity, tidal displacements, and surface impacts on Mars.)

Seven years later, in 1963, NASA named its first NASA Planetary Quarantine (PQ) Officer, who was put in charge of the "sterilization" research efforts. Though the title has since changed to "Planetary Protection Officer" and the program has grown—teams of scientists from both public and private fields are currently working on all kinds of solutions to the problem of human grime and alien grime—the basic concern, namely that humans will accidentally contaminate other planets with bacteria or some other piece of earthly material, remains the same.

Global guidelines exist to keep space clean, but, as a 2015 document outlining 25 key planetary protection questions showed, humans might not doing enough to mitigate these risks. And the urgency around keeping material from Earth from inadvertently entering environments in space is at an all-time high, thanks to NASA and Space X’s intentions to send humans to Mars within the next seven to fifteen years.

What is the fear, exactly? First of all, contamination from Earth could wreck our efforts to find other forms of living things. “If you want to know if life exists there now, you kind of have to approach that question before you send people," planetary geologist Matthew Golombek of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory told Science News earlier this year. Then, there's the fear that earthly microbes might somehow actually cause damage on other planets. Since we have not actually documented life on another planet, this fear has not been realized but we know enough about how biological transfer can create pandemics on Earth—one former planetary protection officer, Michael Meltzer, used the rats carrying Black Plague as an example in his 2012 book, When Biospheres Collide, of such a disastrous interaction.

To get a sense of what protecting the universe against earthly microbes entails, we sent photographer Damien Maloney to a Lockheed Martin campus in Colorado, where engineers are rigorously testing space probes, landing gear and more for its cleanliness. We also went to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center near Washington, D.C., to see more of the efforts to keep spacecraft, and everything they contain, bereft of dirt.

A monitor in the control room for the Multipurpose Test Facility at Lockheed Martin displays progress on the InSight spacecraft in Littleton, Colorado. The InSight is scheduled to be deployed in November 2018 to the surface of Mars, where it will be looking for clues about the geologic history of the Red Planet.
Inside a rock storage room at JPL. Earth rocks are sourced from across the country and NASA keeps a collection of meteoroid rocks for testing as well.
Lockheed Martin team members test the levels of environmental particles on an instrument and will take corrective action, if necessary, prior to launch.
A testing, prototype robotic arm at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) that controls the "end-effector" pieces (think the end of a robot arm). The prototype here is used in the development of similar hardware that will go to Mars and take core samples of Martian rock.
A mounted earth rock sample at JPL that is used to test abrasion processes to scrape off the weathered surface of the rock to access the interior of the rock by NASA robots bound for Mars.
Lockheed's team integrates the SEIS instrument on the deck of the spacecraft, testing it constantly to make sure that all the complicated systems are working together. Note the outfits of the engineers—keeping human contamination off the space-bound equipment is of paramount importance.
A NASA JPL engineer holds the "end-effector" mechanism of the sampling arm, which is mounted within the ACA (adaptive caching assembly).  The end-effector consists of a tube gripper and has a sample tube attached to it. A similar device will be used for extracting Martian rock samples.
The refrigerator at JPL. Who says NASA doesn't have a sense of humor?
A prototype of the Mars Organics Molecule Analyser (MOMA) at a lab at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. The instrument will be carried on the ExoMars Rover and will be looking for life on Mars in 2020.
Samples drilled from Earth rocks during testing of prototype drills for the Mars mission at JPL.
Exterior view of Lockheed Martin facilities where weather satellites are located.
A 3D-printed model of the SEIS instrument at Lockheed Martin is used by the team for demonstrations.
The team wipes down the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3) instrument prior to installing it on the rover at Lockheed Martin. The HP3 will determine the geothermal heat flux on Mars when InSight lands on the surface; no human germs should be present to interfere with that measurement. The HP3 is the first instrument that will probe below the surface of Mars.
A view of the environmental development chamber at JPL used to test coring operations at Martian pressure and temperature. The rock seen inside the chamber is an Earth rock from the U.S. Southwest.

This article was originally published as part of our Off Topic newsletter, where you get an original story delivered to your inbox each and every week. Sign up now.

Share this story