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All you need to know about the NASA Planetary Protection Office

The Office of Planetary Protection at NASA is hiring a Planetary Protection Officer. Here’s all you need to know about the role and what it entails.

There has been a lot of hype around the newly announced NASA position of Planetary Protection Officer. While the official statement regarding what this job entails sounds pretty heavy, the actual goals imply a much simpler task – to protect earth from aliens and aliens from earth.

The Planetary Protection Office aims to bring about a responsible exploration practice into our space programmes by establishing efforts that have three areas to protect – the science, the explored environment and Earth. The goals are directed towards alien life and broadly establish three points:

  • Preserving the natural state of the world being explored.
  • Prevent any biological contamination of the world being explored to not harm our chances of finding life elsewhere, if it exists.
  • In case life is discovered elsewhere, prudent steps have to be taken to protect earth from contamination.

To achieve these goals, the office will be involved in multiple facets of any mission. For instance, they would be involved in the construction of a sterile spacecraft (one with little or no biological burden), development of flight plans that take into account planetary bodies and their health and more. Depending on the nature of the mission and the outcomes expected, the extent of cleanliness varies. For instance, the precautions for a target body that can provide any clue about life on the planet would be less than what is required of a shuttle going to a potentially Earth-like planet.

A brief history of planetary protection practices

Be a Planetary Protection Officer

NASA is also offering a course to train future planetary protection officers. Limited to 14 students per course at a first come first serve basis, the course is held at the Space Station Processing Facility, Kennedy Space Center, FL 32899. The course covers topics like:

  • Relevant treaties, regulations and policies
  • The biology of microflora, including extremophiles
  • Laboratory techniques and practices
  • Planning for compliance
  • Guidelines for hardware design
  • Data analysis and reporting

The main objective of this course is to get the current and future Planetary Protection practitioners up to date with NASA and COSPAR (Committee on Space Research) policies and practices. This course consists of a comprehensive review of all applicable policies, practices, and procedures required to implement a successful planetary protection program, and emphasizes an integration of managerial, administrative, and laboratory activities.

A lot of work goes into reducing contamination on space missions
A lot of work goes into reducing contamination on space missions

If you were wondering if the course is right for you, NASA wants you to know that the course has been designed for a range of professionals including managers, engineers, designers, lab technicians and anyone else interested in the application of planetary protection principles. Interestingly, the course also provides hands-on training with microbial sampling and data management – one of the most important skills for a planetary protection officer to have.

So what do they exactly do?

An example here would be helpful. Take orbiter and flyby missions. If the probability that the craft will impact the target body is low, the cleanliness requirements for that mission might be reduced. But if by design, the craft cannot ensure a clean and un-contaminating design, then the planetary protection regulations would ensure that the biological burden on the craft is low. To understand these requirements in detail for different types of missions, check out this link.

What is the job like?

As a Planetary Protection Officer, your responsibilities will include the following:

  • To lead planning and coordination of activities related to NASA mission planetary protection needs.
  • To lead the independent evaluation of, and provide advice regarding, compliance by robotic and human spaceflight missions with NASA planetary protection policies, statutory requirements and international obligations.
  • Advise the Chief, SMA and other officials regarding the merit and implications of programmatic decisions involving risks to planetary protection objectives.
  • To lead interactions with COSPAR, National Academies, and advisory committees on planetary protection matters, in coordination with relevant offices.
  • Recommend and lead the preparation of new or revised NASA standards and directives in accordance with established processes and guidelines.

Do you qualify?

The job is listed here and has a particular application process specified there. First of all, you have to be a US Citizen. Then there are quite a few technical requirements like a broad engineering expertise out of which at least one year is at the GS-15 level or equivalent.

Orbital Debris
A computer-generated (not-to-scale) image of objects in Earth orbit that are currently being tracked. Approximately 95% of the objects in this illustration are orbital debris, i.e., not functional satellites.

Candidates must also have a degree in physical science, engineering, or mathematics that included 24 semester hours in physical science and/or related engineering science such as mechanics, dynamics, properties of materials, and electronics. Additional requirements are specified on the listing.

What’s the pay like?

The salary is pegged at $124,406 to $187,000 / per year, which is equivalent to a monthly salary of Rs. 6.6 lakhs to 9.9 lakhs. If you do qualify for this – go ahead and apply soon because the applications close on 14th of August.

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Arnab Mukherjee

Arnab Mukherjee