Why must everything always be about aliens on the internet?
The most recent example comes at the hands of a bunch of well-meaning journalists really blowing something out of proportion. Basically, NASA posted a job listing looking for a full-time “planetary protection officer” to join the agency—and breathless alien hilarity ensued.
Some progressively more hysterical coverage of the ad suggested that this poor official is expected to keep us safe from alien invasion.
At a really fundamental level, that’s kind of true. The Office of Planetary Protection is expected to help protect Earth from possible contamination by alien microbes that might hitch a ride back to our planet through sample return, but just stopping there misses the point.
One of the main jobs of a planetary protection officer is to help NASA make sure we’re protecting the solar system — and any life in it — from us.
Spacecraft heading to other objects in our solar system need to be as clean as possible, meaning that NASA has to be sure that the millions of microbes living on basically everything on this planet aren’t on the hardware we’re sending out to other places.
This makes a lot of sense, right? We don’t want to just deliver our Earth microbes to other planets, possibly contaminating them and harming whatever other life might be there already.
We also want to be sure that we’re not introducing some microbes that could actually thrive on another planet, totally screwing over the chance for life on that world to develop naturally.
NASA takes this really seriously.
Even the Cassini spacecraft — which has been exploring Saturn in the vacuum of space for more than 10 years — is going to make a death-dive into Saturn just to be sure that it doesn’t contaminate any possibly life-harboring moons.
Sure, if we ever bring back material from another world like the moon or Mars, the planetary protection officer will need to think about some kind of game plan for if alien microbes did stow away back to Earth, but that’s not in the cards right now.
So if you’re applying to the job thinking you’ll get to kick alien ass like Will Smith or Jeff Goldblum, think again. You’ll be dealing in microbes, my friend, not telepathic monsters.