NASA’s new planetary protection officer says she doesn’t want ‘another red Roadster up there in orbit’

The last photo of

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The last photo of “Starman” in Elon Musk’s red Tesla Roadster as it flies toward Mars orbit. Earth is the bright crescent seen in the background.
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Elon Musk/SpaceX via Instagram

  • NASA has a new planetary protection officer: astrobiologist Lisa Pratt.
  • She’s tasked with protecting the Earth from alien invaders, and protecting the solar system from Earth’s trash.
  • Protecting the Earth from aliens is less about keeping away “little green men” and more about making sure that foreign microbes don’t contaminate our planet.
  • Pratt has a “leave no trace” ethic when it comes to the solar system, and she isn’t happy about the idea of red sports cars floating around aimlessly in space.

There’s one person at NASA responsible for making sure aliens don’t invade the Earth.

It’s a lofty task, so when the position, NASA’s “Planetary Protection Officer,” became available last year, it generated a lot of buzz.

The interplanetary job posting even caught the eye of nine-year-old Jack Davis, who wrote the space agency a handwritten letter asking to be considered for the job.

“I am young, so I can learn to think like an alien,” Davis reasoned in his penciled, 1-page note.

Despite his enthusiasm, Davis didn’t get the six figure job (pay ranges from $124,406 to $187,000 a year). Instead, a more seasoned astrobiologist, Lisa Pratt, stepped into the Planetary Protection Officer role earlier this month.

Pratt says she’s deeply concerned with how to “safely and ethically” look for life on Mars, without accidentally killing any extraterrestrial life that might be lurking out there.

Don’t dump your Earth trash on Mars

Pratt isn’t thrilled with what Elon Musk did earlier this month, when he sent a Tesla roadster sports car into space while testing out his reusable Falcon Heavy rocket.

As commercial companies like SpaceX become budget-friendly ways to explore the solar system, Pratt wants to make sure they’re doing so in a sustainable way, and helping the solar system stay clean.

“We have to figure out how to work closely, how to move forward in a collaborative posture so we don’t have another red Roadster up there in orbit,” she said to NASA scientists in off-the-cuff remarks, as Space News reported.

The idea of extraterrestrial life is not something that only 9-year-olds get excited about – scientists like Pratt are also intrigued by the idea that life may still live, hidden on Mars.

“I fully expect we will encounter life in our solar system,” she said.

There might still be life on Mars, and Pratt doesn’t want us to kill it

Pratt’s used to looking for life in really harsh places. A professor emeritus at Indiana University, she has been studying how microorganisms adapt to extreme hot and cold for more than 3 decades.

Lisa Pratt

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Lisa Pratt
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Anna Powell Teeter/Indiana University

She’s wandered into active gold mines in South Africa to discover what happens in super-hot waters flowing deep below the Earth’s surface. She’s also ventured to freezing cold mines in the Canadian Arctic to see how life might survive under the ice and snow. Now, she’s setting her sights on Mars, where winter temperatures can dip to below -240 degrees Fahrenheit.

Pratt wants to make sure that while we’re discovering more about other planets like Mars, we’re not dumping a ton of Earth trash into that space. In 2020, a NASA rover is set to land and collect samples from the red planet. And it’ll be her job to make sure that the mission doesn’t make a big mess on Martian soil.

She says any bits of Earthly trash that get deposited could mess up our chances of a human future on Mars.

There’s a chance that we might bring “bits and pieces or intact spores of Earth organisms to Mars and inadvertently inoculate a habitable planet,” Pratt said on video earlier this month.

“Mars is relatively clean, so let’s try to find the answers before we change the conditions forever,” she said.