NASA wants to hire a Planetary Protection Officer (PPO) who would assist the space agency in protecting planets (including Earth) from potential microbial contamination. The job advert regarding this post has been posted on U.S. government’s official employment website. This position is reserved only for U.S. citizens and nationals, and the last date for sending applications is August 14, 2017.

Article IX of the Outer Space Treaty

The job of PPO relates to article IX of the outer space treaty which states that all Parties to the Treaty should adopt appropriate measures to avoid harmful contamination of Earth, moon and other celestial bodies during exploration of outer space.

The Treaty also directs that any chance of contaminating a celestial body during a space mission must be less than a 1-in-10,000. The US signed and ratified this treaty in 1967.

Primary responsibilities of PPO

According to NASA, the main responsibilities of the PPO would be to ensure that robots and astronauts traveling to space don’t carry with them, intentionally or unintentionally, any biological or organic material, simply because any such material could contaminate celestial bodies. The same policy also applies to spacecraft returning to Earth with samples from extraterrestrial targets of exploration. Although NASA sterilizes its spacecraft to prevent forward contamination, the PPO would be quite handy in avoiding even the slightest possibility of backward contamination, i.e., microbes brought back to Earth from space.

According to NASA, the PPO will work with different branches of American space agency as well as external organizations involved in planetary protection. The officer will advise on the compliance of spaceflight missions with NASA’s planetary protection policies and international obligations. The PPO will also occasionally travel to space centers of other countries to analyze their planet-bound robots.

Europa mission

NASA is planning for several space missions in coming years, including one to Europa—the icy, potentially habitable moon of Jupiter. Although the primary goal of Europa mission would be just to map the surface of the moon and search for clues about its habitability and the hidden ocean, there is still a chance that the NASA’s robot could crash-land on its surface—a situation where the role of PPO becomes quite significant.

NASA says it will initially offer a three-year contract to the candidate found suitable for the job. The agency may, however, extend the contract for next two years, if required. The selected candidate will receive a salary up to $187,000 annually.