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IU Astrobiologist's New NASA Post 'Out of this World'
Indiana Ag Connection - 03/12/2018

To Lisa Pratt, the most important question human beings could ever ask is "Are we alone?" As the new planetary protection officer at NASA, she is finding answers.

The job is literally out of this world. A faculty member in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences for the past 30 years, Pratt was sworn in to her new position in Washington, D.C. She will remain a professor emerita at IU.

In her new role, Pratt is responsible for protecting our planet from potential extraterrestrial life forms, as well as preventing transportation of Earth's microbes on exploratory missions to other planets, like Mars. The position is within NASA's Safety and Mission Assurance Technical Authority.

"These are our first steps," she said. "In our own solar system, our own backyard, is there evidence of another form of life that is similar enough to life as we know it on Earth to recognize it as living? We need to start the quest by carefully exploring the planetary bodies near Earth."

But rather than aliens invading Earth, Pratt's major concern is the "extraterrestrial side." Her position guards against accidentally carrying bits and pieces of Earth to other planets. This is especially important since discoveries over the past 10 years -- such ice near the surface of Mars -- have caused scientists to regard the planet as much more habitable than previously thought.

What qualifies a person to serve as a real-life "guardian of the galaxy"? Pratt said her research at IU prepared her for NASA. Joining the university's faculty in 1987, she has worked to understand how microorganisms adapt to extreme environments. To do so, she had to visit places where people hadn't done much looking.

From top: Professor emerita and NASA planetary protection officer Lisa Pratt; Pratt working on a field campaign in Greenland; Pratt drilling holes on the margin of the Greenland ice sheet. Top left photo by Anna Powell Teeter; top right and bottom photos courtesy of Honeybee Robotics Spacecraft Mechanisms Corp.

The first project that led to work with NASA came about 15 years ago. She and colleagues from across the globe ventured into active gold mines in South Africa to search for life in the hot waters that flow deep underground. It turned out to be a critical moment in her career, she said. Because the research was closely coupled to things that NASA wanted to know about life in extreme environments, the agency began to fund future projects -- as well as invite her to sit on committees and serve on review panels.

But studying life at high temperatures didn't provide enough insight into how organisms might survive the low temperatures on Mars -- or potentially the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn. Therefore, Pratt pursued similar work in the Canadian Arctic and, most recently, co-led a $2.4 million grant from NASA's Astrobiology Science and Technology for Exploring Planets program to sample methane on the margin of the Greenland ice sheet. That project was a collaboration with Jeffrey White, a professor in the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

"Everything I've been working on and doing with my students has contributed to preparing me to think about how we sample life in extreme environments on Earth, and what we look for, learning from our field campaigns on Earth and then trying to translate that work to a robotic mission on a remote landing," she said.

Looking forward, Pratt said she's excited for the Mars 2020 mission, which will be the first step in potentially bringing back samples from Mars to study in labs on Earth. Smaller missions to further look at Mars are in the works, too.

"Mars is relatively clean, so let's try to find the answers before we change the conditions forever," Pratt said.

The effort will require a lot of hard work, careful investigation and collaboration with other nations to create policies regarding future planetary exploration. But Pratt is up for the challenge.

"I'm thrilled that at this point in my career, I'm able to shift from environmental research on Earth to thinking about how to safely and ethically conduct the search for the evidence of life on Mars and the other planetary bodies," she said. "I fully expect we will encounter life in our solar system."

Although her new role at NASA requires her to live in Washington, D.C., Pratt will regularly return to IU to work with Ph.D. students who are conducting research in her lab on campus.

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