Wanted: A planetary protection officer

WASHINGTON • There is a vacancy at United States space agency Nasa, and it may have one of the greatest job titles ever conceived: Planetary protection officer.

It pays well, between US$124,000 (S$168,660) and US$187,000 annually. You get to work with really smart people as part of the three- to five-year appointment, but do not have to manage anyone. And, your work could stave off an alien invasion of Earth or, more importantly, protect other planets from us.

President Donald Trump has said he wants to realign government spending to focus on "deep space exploration rather than Earth-centric research", as The Post reported in March.

So how does the one-person Office of Planetary Protection fit in with Nasa's broader objectives?

The job announcement is rather dense. But Dr Catharine Conley, the Nasa scientist who has been in this role for three years, has spoken candidly about its scope and responsibilities, telling Scientific American in 2014 that her focus is to ensure that the agency's activities comply with a 50-year-old international treaty that set standards for preventing biological contamination outside of Earth and safeguarding the planet's biosphere from any alien life.

The earliest missions to Mars included meticulous steps to not sully the Martian landscape, she said. "The landers," Dr Conley explained, "were packaged and put inside a bioshield and baked in an oven to kill all organisms. We needed to protect the life-detection instruments and protect the Mars environment in case it turned out to be habitable."

Candidates for the post must be US citizens or nationals, and hold a degree in physical science, engineering or mathematics. Dr Conley has not said whether she will reapply for the job.

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 04, 2017, with the headline 'Wanted: A planetary protection officer'. Print Edition | Subscribe