Some in the media have been entertaining the rest of us with stories that have headlines that suggest that NASA is searching for someone to defend the planet against alien invasion called a #Planetary Protection officer. The position comes with a six figure salary and generous government benefits. However, the job is not quite as glamorous as it seems and it may not be necessary.

What does it mean to protect a planet?

Planetary protection is not, as some click bait headlines would have one think, the coordination of the Earth’s defenses against alien invasion. In fact, the position had existed since the mid-1960s when NASA was trying to figure out how to protect the Earth from possible alien microbes that might be brought back from the moon by the Apollo astronauts.

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The stringent protocols at the Lunar Receiving Lab were created to make certain that no alien microbe would get loose and possibly wipe out the human species. The strictures were eventually relaxed when it became evident that the moon was sterile where it came to #Life Forms.

The brief of the Planetary Protection Officer now extends to protecting other worlds from Earth microbes. Every probe that lands on another planet, like the Mars Curiosity Rover, must be made as sterile as possible to stop Earth life forms from traveling and possibly taking root on the Red Planet, thus complicating the search for life on Mars.

Is it necessary to quarantine Mars from Earth microbes?

Researchers who work on missions to the Martian surface have long complained of the restrictions of planetary protection.

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Mars probes going back to the Viking landers had to be baked for several days to kill as many Earth germs as possible. Scientists have increasingly maintained that these procedures are not only burdensome by unnecessary. In their view, Earth microbes will not long survive on the Martian surface from a combination of chilly temperatures, radiation, and toxic chemicals in the soil. Besides, such levels of planetary protection become impossible once one starts sending people to the Martian surface. Even if some Earth microbes survive, future explorers will just identify them by sequencing their DNA.

What is the purpose of going to Mars?

The question of planetary protection becomes even more relevant when one asks what the purpose of going to Mars is. It is to find life, no matter how rudimentary, or is it to establish a settlement, a new branch of human civilization? The two imperatives may not be compatible, especially if those in the first camp insist on making Mars a science preserve where, if people go at all, will only be in a limited capacity.