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.
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.
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.