There is a new space sheriff in town for alien-hunting U.S. scientists: Lisa Pratt, NASA’s latest “planetary protection officer,” an astrobiologist from Indiana University who entered the role in early February.
Although not exactly the lawless wild west, the search for extraterrestrial life remains so speculative that meaningful regulations are few and far between. One exception is the proviso, codified in international law, to avoid potentially harmful interplanetary exchanges of biological material that could spark virulent epidemics on Earth or wipe out fragile alien biospheres.
That means avoiding “forward contamination” of other worlds by terrestrial organisms carried on spacecraft, and also preventing “backward contamination” of Earth by alien bioactive molecules that may exist in otherworldly samples retrieved for scientific study. Pratt is NASA’s point person to ensure that U.S. missions follow these precautionary protocols.
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