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Science

Fill the space: NASA needs a Planetary Protection Officer

Looking for full-time work? Have advanced qualifications in physical sciences or engineering? Not afraid of first contact, even if only on a microbial scale? A US citizen? Then NASA might have work for you.

Bildergalerie Tim Burton Filmszene Mars Attacks Außerirdische Jack Nicholson (picture-alliance/dpa/Film Warner)

The job doesn't really have a "Mars Attacks!" type scenario in mind

NASA's recruitment drive for a new Planetary Protection Officer was too good for headline writers to resist this week. "Frequent travel may be required," the vacancy posting on the US government's jobs website advised.

There were no mentions of first contact or Hollywood action heroes, but retired NASA astronaut Mark Kelly took the conversation there on everybody's behalf. He nominated Bruce Willis, perhaps in reference to films like Armageddon or The Fifth Element.

One 9-year-old even hand-wrote a cover letter to NASA that a friend of the family couldn't resist sharing on Reddit, saying that despite his young age he reckoned he'd be a good fit for the job. "One of the reasons is my sister says I am an alien," fourth-grader and self-styled "Guardian of the Galaxy" Jack Davis said. "I have also seen the show Marvel Agents of Shield and hope to see the movie Men in Black. I am great at video games. I am young, so I can learn to think like an alien," he pointed out confidently.

Guarding against rather smaller lifeforms

While reacting to a full-blown alien invasion would presumably fall within the purview of the job, which pays between $124,406 and $187,000 (around 105,000-157,000 euros), other US government agencies like the military would surely take the lead in such cases.

What NASA really has its eyes on is much smaller lifeforms, mainly microbial ones. The two principle goals are monitoring Earth for signs of potentially dangerous extraterrestrial life - for instance in falling space debris - and seeking to ensure that NASA's own missions don't inadvertently pollute or contaminate other planets with earthly matter.

Meteoriten-Einschlag in Chelyabinsk Russland (picture-alliance/dpa)

It's conceivable, if not very likely, that space debris might bring harmful microbial life to Earth

The outgoing Planetary Protection Officer, Catharine Conley, who holds a PhD in plant biology, has been in the job since 2006.

"As the Planetary Protection Officer for NASA, I am responsible for ensuring that the United States complies with Article IX of The Outer Space Treaty," Conley said in a NASA interview. "Article IX specifies that planetary exploration should be carried out in a manner so as to avoid contamination of bodies we are exploring throughout the solar system, and also to avoid any adverse effects to Earth if materials are brought back from outer space."

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NASA: Saturn moon could support life

In short, the job's a bid to safeguard against one of NASA's nightmare PR scenarios. Joyous headlines about "earth-like life discovered on faraway planet," to be followed soon after by a hasty apology: "On second thoughts, it seems like we put those lifeforms there by mistake."

This danger exists, for instance, for the Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn that's soon to end its 20-year mission. It's spent more than a decade orbiting Saturn but is almost out of fuel and propellant. NASA recently used a burst of what fuel remained to put the ship on a collision course with Saturn at a speed that will ensure its destruction. That's to mitigate the small, but real risk of Cassini drifting and eventually crashing into Enceladus, one of Saturn's moons. Enceladus has a sub-surface saltwater ocean that might host hydrothermal vents, and indeed life. Should Cassini crash into it, it could deposit microbes from Earth which could then thrive on the heat generated by the craft's plutonium-powered radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs).

Raumsonde «Cassini» (NASA/JPL-Caltech/dpa)

Cassini has found moons around Saturn that could host life; now it's important not to crash there and contaminate them

Cassini is set to hit Saturn, the culmination of 13 years spent orbiting the planet, on September 15 this year.

By then, a new Planetary Protection Officer might have taken over from Conley. The closing date for applications, for a job open only to US citizens due to rules on civil service recruitment, is August 14. The successful applicant would have "secret" security clearance, and will require various technical skills. Although NASA's final requirement in the advertisement harks back once again to a "First Contact" scenario.

"Demonstrated skills in diplomacy that resulted in win-win solutions during extremely difficult and complex multilateral discussions. This includes building coalitions among organizations to achieve common goals," the job posting demands of would-be applicants.

Granted, these tough and complex multilateral talks and coalitions are most likely within the NASA family, other space agencies, and perhaps with other government organs, but there's no harm in letting your imagination out for a stroll sometimes.

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