IU Astrobiologist Named Planetary Protection Officer at NASA

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Lisa Pratt Lisa Pratt

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, 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.

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.

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. Pratt 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.

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.

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.

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