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OUT OF THIS WORLD | What's Up In Space - a weekly look at the biggest news coming down to Earth from space

NASA is hiring someone to protect the universe from us

Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Thursday, August 3, 2017, 4:30 PM - NASA is hiring someone to protect the universe from us, teams are setting up to land missions on the Moon and an asteroid close flyby in October offers a chance to test planetary defense! It's What's Up In Space!

This time, we're the aliens

Okay, so NASA put up a job notice this week, for a Planetary Protection Officer, and of course, the media grabbed hold of this and ran wild with it, saying that the space agency was hiring someone to protect us from hostile extraterrestrials.

Well, there's a tiny nugget of truth to that, but really protecting us is a secondary function of this job.

You see, in this person's opinion, WE are the aliens they will be watching out for, or at the very least, microbes from Earth.

The primary purpose of the Office of Planetary Protection is to ensure that the spacecraft, landers and rovers we send out to other planets and moons do not end up contaminating those planets and moons with organisms from Earth. This is especially important if the planet or moon could harbour life, either now, or possibly at some time in its past.

Enceladus, via Cassini. Credit: NASA

Mars is one example, since it appears to have had, in its distant past, an environment that would have been friendly to known forms of life. There's even the possibility, however slim, of Mars harbouring life right now, perhaps microbes living underground, or in the briny "recurring slope lineae" seen in craters, or under its polar icecaps. Still, even if the chances are slim, we wouldn't want to send the Curiosity or Opportunity rovers to one of these spots, because they haven't been properly sterilized to remove all Earth microbes. Even with the trip to Mars and the harsh environment there, some microbes could definitely survive, either inside the rover or on its underbelly, so we don't want to take the chance.

Some of the moons of Saturn and Jupiter are other examples, as they either have evidence of subsurface oceans (Enceladus and Europa), or they have a thick atmosphere that actually contains compounds that are known to be essential for life (Titan). This is why NASA is plunging its Cassini spacecraft into the atmosphere of Saturn in September. The spacecraft was not sterilized before it left Earth, and NASA doesn't want any possibility of the probe crashing into Enceladus or Titan, and possibly contaminating those environments.

While we investigate these places in our solar system, if we do end up detecting some form of life there, even if it is just microbes, we want to be sure that life actually developed there.

Finding life that developed locally on Mars, Enceladus, Europa or Titan would be an amazing breakthrough, as it would be the first detection of alien life. Detecting life that was simply deposited on one of these bodies because we weren't careful enough to sterilize our spacecraft before we sent it all that way to search for life, would be a profound disappointment (and, quite honestly, a colossal waste of time and money).

In comes a Planetary Protection Officer, to ensure that we don't end up making that mistake.

There is a secondary function of the position, to deal with the possibility of spacecraft bringing microbes back to Earth from somewhere else in the solar system.This would become an issue in the case of the various "sample retrieval missions" that NASA would like to run in the future. Basically, a lander or rover collects samples from its environment and leaves them in canisters to be picked up by a future mission, which will launch them in a payload back to Earth. The value of this kind of mission is that we can work far quicker examining samples here on Earth, in a lab, than any lander or rover could on the surface of another planetary body.

In that case, the Planetary Protection Officer would come up with a way for us to keep those samples locked up and sealed away, until such time as we could verify that no forms of alien life were brought back along with the samples.

The problem with running amok with stories of protecting us from hostile aliens is that we have no idea, currently, how to actually run a sample retrieval mission. Until then, NASA's new Planetary Protection Officer will simply have to be satisfied with protecting other planets from being contaminated by us.

Google Moon missions are set to launch

Other than China's Chang-e 3 lander and Yutu rover setting down there in December 2015, there's been something of a deficit of missions to the Moon in the past few decades.

Well, that's about to change, as teams involved with Google's Lunar Xprize are setting up to launch their creations later this year!

The Google Lunar Xprize competition involves several teams, from around the world, who must design a robotic mission, launch it to the Moon before December 31, 2017. Once it arrives there, it must safely land, travel a distance of at least 500 metres over the lunar surface, and transmit high-definition images and video back to Earth. Whichever team completes all of those objectives first, wins first prize - $20 million. Second place gets $5 million. Bonuses are also available if the mission performs some kind of key science, such as verifying that there is water ice on the Moon. They can also earn extra prizes for other accomplishments, such as imaging human-made hardware left behind on the Moon during the Apollo missions. 

Out of the 33 initial registered teams, only four are apparently still in the running to launch by the end of this year - Moon Express (a company that ultimately wants to mine the Moon), an international team, Synergy Moon, an Indian team called Team Indus, and a Japanese team named Hakuto. A fifth team, SpaceIL, from Israel, was on track as well, but the launch for their entry has been delayed until sometime in 2018 or 2019, so that likely removes them from the competition.

Keep an eye out for these missions to be launching in the months ahead!

NASA to use Asteroid 2012 TC4 flyby for science and planetary defense test

On October 12, 2017, a small asteroid known as 2012 TC4 will be making a close, but safe, flyby past Earth.

The path of asteroid 2012 TC4 on October 12, 2017. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

When it does, scientists here are sure to be watching it, including reflecting radar beams off of it, to give us a more accurate measurement of its size and shape, and potentially some idea of what its made of.

Along with those scientific investigations, though, NASA's Planetary Defense Coordination Office will also be using an array of observatories to locate and track 2012 TC4, to test their ability to monitor these objects as they pass by Earth.

"Scientists have always appreciated knowing when an asteroid will make a close approach to and safely pass the Earth because they can make preparations to collect data to characterize and learn as much as possible about it," Michael Kelley, the program scientist and NASA Headquarters lead for the TC4 observation campaign, said in a NASA press release. "This time we are adding in another layer of effort, using this asteroid flyby to test the worldwide asteroid detection and tracking network, assessing our capability to work together in response to finding a potential real asteroid threat."

Although 2012 TC4 was only observed for a very limited time when it passed us by back in 2012 (at around one-quarter the distance to the Moon), plotting the trajectory from just those few observations was good enough to know that the asteroid will come no closer than 6,800 kilometers from Earth. The outer limit of its closest pass will be around 270,000 km from the surface of Earth (two-thirds the distance to the Moon). While there's no way to tell, for sure, where in that range it will be when it passes by, scientists are sure that it poses no threat to Earth.

Stay tuned for more on this, to come.

Sources: USAJobs | NASA | Slate | Google Lunar Xprize | NASA

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