University Astrobiologist Named Planetary Protection Officer at NASA

(BLOOMINGTON) – An Indiana University astrobiologist has been named to a NASA position responsible for protecting the planet from microscopic threats originating on other planets.

Lisa Pratt
Lisa Pratt. Photo by Anna Powell Teeter

Lisa Pratt, Provost Professor in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, has been named the planetary protection officer at NASA. The position is responsible for the protection of Earth from potential contamination by extraterrestrial life forms, including potential microorganisms that could live in the ice or groundwater of Mars, as well as preventing accidental transportation of Earth’s microbes to other planets through exploratory probes – or the boots of astronauts.

“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,” said Pratt, who 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. This position plays a direct role in seeking evidence to address a profound question: Are we alone?”

The position of planetary protection officer, within NASA’s Safety and Mission Assurance Technical Authority, 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.

“NASA, along with the National Science Foundation, has supported Lisa’s work on biogeochemical research on microbial transformation of simple inorganic molecules for the past two decades,” said Frank Groen, director of the safety assurance requirements division of NASA’s Office of Safety and Mission Assurance. “As NASA’s planetary protection officer, she will be responsible for the leadership of NASA’s planetary protection capability, maintenance of planetary protection policies and oversight of their implementation by NASA’s space flight missions.” 

Pratt has been a member of the IU faculty since 1987, where her research focuses on understanding how microorganisms adapt to extreme environments. This requires the in-person collection of pristine samples from poisonous-gas-filled waters in extremely hot and cold environments.

In 2011, she and Jeffrey White, a professor in the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs, co-led a $2.4 million grant from NASA’s Astrobiology Science and Technology for Exploring Planets program to study methane emissions and microbial life on the margin of the Greenland Ice Sheet. She has also worked with industrial engineers on the design of robotic drills to probe rocks and ice using methods adaptable to the search for past or present life on Mars, as well as the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn.

“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,” she added.

Previously, Pratt served as a team director at the NASA Astrobiology Institute from 2003 to 2008 and as chair of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group from 2013 to 2016. She is currently a member of the Return Sample Science Board for the Mars 2020 Rover mission, which is responsible for advanced planning related to the safe transportation of Martian samples to Earth for analysis.

“As a member of the faculty, I am immensely grateful to Indiana University for supporting my research with unwavering commitment over the past 30 years,” Pratt said. “As the science of biogeochemistry advanced, IU helped my laboratory keep pace with the demand for increasingly sophisticated instruments and facilities. A remarkable demonstration of that commitment was the construction of the Multidisciplinary Science Building II, which was designed to spark collaboration among environmental researchers on the Bloomington campus, including a discussion that led to the arctic sampling campaign that helped me prepare for this position.”

“Over the course of her career at IU, Lisa has distinguished herself as an intellectually curious and adventurous researcher, conducting field research in far-flung locales and serving in a leadership role at numerous high-profile organizations, including NASA,” said Larry Singell, executive dean of the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences. “Her appointment as the agency’s planetary protection officer is a testament to her tireless dedication to science and outstanding reputation among her peers.”

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, at the agency’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., is effective Feb. 5. She will become a professor emerita at IU.

Information Kevin Fryling, News at IU Bloomington