INDIANAPOLIS — NASA has hired a Hoosier astrobiologist to protect planet Earth from microscopic threats.
Lisa Pratt, Provost Professor in the Indiana University Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, has been named the planetary protection officer at NASA.
That means Pratt is responsible for protecting Earth from potential contamination by extraterrestrial life forms, including potential microorganisms that could live in the ice or groundwater of Mars.
Pratt will also work to make sure that Earth's microbes don't accidentally make to other planets through exploratory probes, or the boots of astronauts embarking on their next mission.
"I am excited about the opportunity to contribute to the mission of planetary protection at a defining moment in human evolution and the advancement of science," Pratt said in a statement.
She also serves as associate executive dean in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences.
"We are on the verge of becoming a spacefaring species, and I feel privileged to be invited into an extraordinary conversation, pushing the frontiers of science, exploration and discovery at NASA," she continued. "This position plays a direct role in seeking evidence to address a profound question: Are we alone?"
Pratt's position serves as a contact point between NASA and international groups such as the Committee on Space Research on issues related to planetary protection, as well as the development and implementation of planetary protection policies within the agency.
She has been a member of the IU faculty since 1987. Her research focuses on understanding how microorganisms adapt to extreme environments, and requires the in-person collection of pristine samples from poisonous-gas-filled waters in extremely hot and cold environments.
Pratt holds a Ph.D. in geology from Princeton University, a master's degree in geology from the University of North Carolina and a master's degree in botany from the University of Illinois.
Her position with NASA in Washington, D.C. is effective Monday. As a result, she will become a professor emerita at IU.
"The importance of planning for the protection of Earth's biosphere, and for responsible exploration of Mars and other locations in our solar system, cannot be overemphasized," Pratt said.
"With only a few decades left until there are boot prints on Mars, it is imperative for the international scientific community to plan for the unknown consequences of contact between two life forms and their biospheres. It's possible that 'first contact' has already occurred due to the unavoidable presence of spores and cell fragments on spacecraft launched from Earth and landed or crashed on Mars.
"If life does exist on Mars, which is a big 'if,' then we have a brief window of time remaining in which extraterrestrial life can be studied in near-isolation from terrestrial life."
Follow Justin L. Mack on Twitter: @justinlmack