NASA is hiring a new 'planetary protection officer' to defend Earth from alien matter, and the pay is a six-figure salary: as much as $187,000 a year.

When we are not sure whether aliens exist, why are we still hiring staff for protecting Earth? I do understand we have to take precautions. But when we don't have any proof why spend $187,000 a year?

Source: Nasa [sic] hiring new 'planetary protection officer' to defend Earth from alien matter - Times of India, Aug 3, 2017

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    $\begingroup$ Did you read the second sentence of that article? "The full-time role of 'planetary protection officer' will involve ensuring that humans in space do not contaminate planets and moons, as well as ensuring that [extraterrestrial] matter does not [adversely affect] Earth." This is more about protecting other worlds from our life and other contaminants, and protecting Earth from potentially hazardous matter. If life is eventually found on other worlds, then it would be included as well. $\endgroup$ – called2voyage Aug 3 '17 at 12:27
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    $\begingroup$ NASA has long had an Office of Planetary Protection. The head of this office is appropriately named the Planetary Protection Officer, who apparently recently resigned. This is a case of a clueless press rather than NASA being clueless. $\endgroup$ – David Hammen Aug 3 '17 at 13:18
  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – called2voyage Aug 4 '17 at 11:57
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    $\begingroup$ Relevant XKCD what-if.xkcd.com/117 $\endgroup$ – Sidney Aug 4 '17 at 15:06
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    $\begingroup$ Another reason it's important to reduce our contamination on other worlds as much as possible is that when we spot something that might look like life, we can be confident it's not something that traveled with us on the bottom of our shoes, so to speak. $\endgroup$ – Dan Aug 4 '17 at 16:25

You're observing shamefully bad journalism. The "protect Earth from aliens" bullet point in the "Highlights" section of the article was put there by an editor who either ignorantly or willfully distorted the actual role of the Planetary Protection Officer.

The first paragraph of the story gets a little closer:

The full-time role of "planetary protection officer" will involve ensuring that humans in space do not contaminate planets and moons, as well as ensuring that alien matter does not infect Earth.

"Planetary Protection Officer" isn't a new position; the current one is retiring. The primary focus of the planetary protection office is sterilizing probes that are going to other planets and moons. This is done both to preserve any existing life elsewhere in the solar system from Terran competition, and so that if and when we find life on other bodies, we will know we didn't bring it ourselves.

Preventing microbes from other worlds reaching Earth is also a concern, for similar reasons.

Developing and implementing the policies of the planetary protection office is a complex job requiring a broad array of both technical and human skills, and so a $187K salary is not remarkable for it:

Candidates will be required to travel frequently — but like any job, there will be a significant amount of emails, proposals and other reading.

Candidates must have at least one year's experience as a top-level civilian government employee, and an advanced degree in physical science, engineering or mathematics. They must also have "advanced knowledge" of planetary protection. The position also requires "demonstrated skills in diplomacy that resulted in win-win solutions during extremely difficult and complex multilateral discussions". The new hire will also receive "secret" security clearance. Only US citizens and US nationals can apply.

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    $\begingroup$ "Must be willing to travel frequently" - wait, to the worlds they plan to protect? :-O Is this the big reveal? $\endgroup$ – corsiKa Aug 3 '17 at 19:06
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    $\begingroup$ @corsiKa I'm guessing they'll be travelling to and from various launch sites and assembly buildings. $\endgroup$ – SGR Aug 4 '17 at 9:52
  • $\begingroup$ "a $187K salary is not remarkable for it" - Not even close, no. PPO is an important role, and PP generally is taken very, very seriously. $\endgroup$ – Dan Aug 4 '17 at 16:22
  • $\begingroup$ $187K is just barely above what a low-level programmer makes in aerospace. It seems like a big number but it's really not, in perspective for that industry. Actually I'm amazed this position doesn't pay a lot more. $\endgroup$ – Jasmine Aug 4 '17 at 18:34
  • $\begingroup$ "skills in diplomacy" - negotiating with aliens? $\endgroup$ – Barmar Aug 4 '17 at 23:17

The planetary protection officer has 2 major functions:

  1. Protect other planets from contamination by our space probes
  2. Protect the Earth from contamination by alien matter

The press have for some reason sensationalized this. Alien matter in this case does not mean little green men with laser pistols, it means matter from any celestial body or object other than Earth. There are good reasons to do both: we don't want Earth organisms interfering with our search for life on other planets, and we don't potentially disruptive extra-terrestrial organisms or matter in our biosphere. If you wait until it's already happened to think about it then it's too late.

As for the salary the requirements are for someone with scientific background and people management skills, that amount of money doesn't sound unreasonable to me.

Planetary protection was first raised as a concern in 1956, when missions to the moon were being discussed, so it's nothing new. Article IX of the outer space treaty states:

States Parties to the Treaty shall pursue studies of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, and conduct exploration of them so as to avoid their harmful contamination and also adverse changes in the environment of the Earth resulting from the introduction of extraterrestrial matter and, where necessary, shall adopt appropriate measures for this purpose.

The office of planetary protection (and therefore this role) are required to be compliant with the treaty, as well as government policy and good practice.

  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – called2voyage Aug 3 '17 at 18:56

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