These days, reading anything (e.g. the news) feels like squeezing your head into a Juicero. Just when I thought we had hit the apex of bad reporting and general dystopia, yesterday, several outlets ran stories about NASA hiring someone “to defend Earth from aliens.” It quickly skyrocketed to become the top story on Facebook news, despite being the media equivalent of horse droppings, wrapped in manure, sprinkled with trash shrapnel.
Clearly, NASA is not hiring anyone to defend the planet from the sorts of alien invaders depicted in stories like these, and this person will not be calling the shots (Independence Day-style) against extraterrestrial belligerents. What this job posting is actually about is very simple and not at all newsworthy: NASA is hiring a planetary protection officer to make sure that spacecraft from Earth don’t contaminate other worlds, and that we don’t bring back potentially dangerous alien microbes from anywhere else. Currently, NASA’s “office” of planetary protection includes just one member, Dr. Cassie Conley.
Of course, you wouldn’t know this from a headline like this:
Image: Screen Grab via Extreme Tech
Image: Screen Grab via The Independent
Or, the spiciest meatball of all:
Image: Screen Shot via Newsweek
A rep from NASA clarified what the division’s actual responsibilities entail.
“The Office of Planetary Protection is involved in many facets of mission development to prevent microbial contamination of other planets and our own,” Laurie Cantillo, lead communications specialist in the planetary science division, told Gizmodo.
Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute in California—which literally searches for advanced extraterrestrial life—was pretty amused by the press coverage surrounding NASA’s new job opening.
“If you have a sample return mission to Mars, you want to be careful in both directions,” he told Gizmodo. “You want to be sure that anything you send to Mars doesn’t contaminate Mars with early bacteria, because what if we found life on Mars but it just turned out to be your neighbours? Sending pond scum to Mars would complicate the search for life there.”
All NASA spacecraft are sterilised to prevent this hypothetical situation, which is known as forward contamination. But the planetary protection officer would also help to ensure that any kind of microbes are not brought back to Earth from other planets. Unsurprisingly, this is called backward contamination.
“As far as protecting us from the kind of aliens you see every night on the TV, NASA’s never considered that,” Shostak added.
“Sending pond scum to Mars would complicate the search for life there.”
Though this should be abundantly clear by now—that NASA isn’t planning to launch an attack on aliens they don’t know exist—Shostak gets some colourful phone calls from those who want to believe.
“I have to say, people do call [me] and say, ‘Do you know anything about the Pentagon’s plans to defend Earth?’” he said. To be clear, Shostak does not know anything about ‘the Pentagon’s plans’ and thinks that even in some alternate reality where he did, the Pentagon wouldn’t waste time or money trying to save us. So please stop calling him.
If you’re interested in astrobiology and fit the qualifications for planetary protections officer, by all means apply to the position. You’d be getting paid $124,406 to $187,000 a year to work at one of the foremost space agencies in the world, and could help shape the future of planetary exploration.
But don’t believe the misinformed hype that NASA has an officer in charge of fighting aliens, Will Smith-with-a-Carboniser-style. Think about it: There is nothing here worth invading for, except for this video of a seal befriending a dog or very fluffy cats. Hypothetically, any and all of these things could exist elsewhere in the universe, so there is really no need to get them from our trash-infested planet.
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