NASA's Planetary Protection Officer Aims to Defend Us from Alien Life

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  • Dr. Lisa Pratt, NASA's Planetary Protection Officer. Photo courtesy of Dr. Lisa Pratt
    Dr. Lisa Pratt, NASA's Planetary Protection Officer. Photo courtesy of Dr. Lisa Pratt
  • Dr. Lisa Pratt collects a sample from a winter drilling expedition at the edge of the Greenland ice sheet in 2014. Photo courtesy of Dr. Lisa Pratt
    Dr. Lisa Pratt collects a sample from a winter drilling expedition at the edge of the Greenland ice sheet in 2014. Photo courtesy of Dr. Lisa Pratt

Move over, Men in Black. There's a new intergalactic sheriff in town.

Her name is Dr. Lisa Pratt, NASA's planetary protection officer, and she's responsible for keeping alien life from contaminating Earth and astronauts from contaminating other planets.

"I've got the best job title on Earth, or perhaps in the entire solar system," said Pratt, who assumed the job in 2018. "But the things that keep me awake at night are the unknown unknowns. It's a monumental task to plan for a return sample from Mars or any other planet, as well as preventing contamination of the planets we visit."

Pratt has spent decades as a professor at Indiana University studying extremophiles, organisms that thrive in physically or geochemically extreme conditions -- such as the hydrothermal vents near the Galapagos rift or the Atacama desert, where organisms have been found in extremely dry soils that contain peroxide minerals, like those found in Martian soil.

Pratt believes that by studying life in extreme environments, NASA will be better prepared to find life on other planets and prevent cross-contamination.

Even though Hollywood has plenty to say about alien lifeforms, Pratt said she tries hard to "keep Hollywood out of my head," so as to stay true to the scientific process. And that's no easy task, given Hollywood's recent surge in sci-fi blockbusters, such as the movie "Life" or the recent Netflix docudrama "Mars."

Pratt said NASA is preparing for a return sample from Mars for study -- perhaps by the early 2030s. She is a member of the Return Sample Science Board for the Mars 2020 Rover mission, which is responsible for advanced planning related to the safe transportation of Martian samples to Earth for analysis, as well as scouting potential landing and base camp sites for humans.

"Most of the organisms in extreme environments on Earth can't be cultured," she said. "But we can sequence them, and we use that data to extrapolate how they might be capable of evolving on another planet."

When it comes to colonizing Mars, Pratt is more pragmatic than the CEO of SpaceX, Elon Musk, and believes that we might have humans there in 30 to 40 years. In contrast, Musk has said he believes humans will be on Mars by 2028.

"It's essential that we do robotic sample returns, so we can study them and establish bio-safety hazard protocols. It would be absurd to send humans to Mars, find life, and perhaps not allow those humans back for fear of contamination," Pratt said.

Commercial space companies are partnering with NASA and Pratt to learn from their expertise in cross-contamination protocols, which are mandated by the Outer Space Treaty ratified in 1967.

In addition to the 2020 Mars mission and the subsequent Fetch mission to retrieve a Mars sample, NASA is hard at work on the Europa Clipper mission, which will conduct detailed reconnaissance of Jupiter's icy moon Europa and investigate whether it could sustain life.

"We are on the verge of becoming a spacefaring species, and I feel privileged to be invited into an extraordinary conversation, pushing the frontiers of science, exploration and discovery at NASA," Pratt said. "This position plays a direct role in seeking evidence to address a profound question: Are we alone?"

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