The search for life begins with a plan to protect the planet

Mars has long loomed large in our collective consciousness. Can it sustain life? Could we live there ourselves one day?

We’re about to find out. But first, Lisa Pratt, an Indiana University professor of astrobiology and NASA’s Planetary Protection Officer, has to make sure it’s safe to explore.

As one of only two Planetary Protection Officers in the world, she has the enormous responsibility of keeping our entire planet safe from extraterrestrial invaders—and keeping other worlds safe from us.

I am so excited to be thinking about what our rights and responsibilities are at the moment humans become space faring. The importance of planning for the protection of Earth’s biosphere, and for the responsible exploration of Mars, can’t be overemphasized.

Lisa Pratt, Planetary Protection Officer

Our future is in her hands

As the planetary protection officer for NASA’s Office of Safety and Mission Assurance, Pratt must keep our world safe from foreign contaminants—and keep other planets free of Earth-based microbes and particles.

In other words, it’s her job to keep anything alive from hitchhiking to Mars—or stowing away on returning missions.

Description of the following video:


[Open on IU logo]

NARRATOR: Is there life on Mars?

[IMAGE: Animated ECG signal of moving line of peaks and dips over top of Mars]

NARRATOR: The answer is we don’t know.

[IMAGE: Animated leaves falling from Mars]

[Words appear: “?”]

NARRATOR: But we do know

[IMAGE: Animated heart underneath two colored blocks holding a sun, snowflake, and thermometers showing hot and cold temperatures]

NARRATOR: that life on earth exists in many extreme environments

[IMAGE: Animated mine scene]

NARRATOR: like the hot, poisonous gas filled waters inside abandoned mines

[IMAGE: Animated icebergs moving toward each other with degrees appearing above them moving toward 100 degrees]

NARRATOR: or the frozen ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, where temperatures can drop below 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

[IMAGE: Portrait of Lisa Pratt]

NARRATOR: Lisa Pratt

[Words appear: “Indiana University astrobiologist”]

NARRATOR: an Indiana University astrobiologist

[Words appear: “NASA’s Planetary Protection Officer”]

NARRATOR: and NASA’s planetary protection officer

[IMAGE: Portrait of Lisa Pratt with animated rockets moving over it]

NARRATOR: is studying evidence that life may exist beyond earth.

[IMAGE: Animated magnifying glass zooming into planet Earth]

NARRATOR: The only problem is it’s really hard to go to space so scientists explore those other places on our planet.

[IMAGE: Animated signs popping up in different areas of planet Earth]

NARRATOR: that mimic the extreme conditions on other planets.

[IMAGE: Animated bacteria scenes on planet Earth and Mars]

NARRATOR: If diverse bacteria can grow and reproduce in sub-zero temperatures or extreme heat on earth, then maybe, maybe they can live in similar environments and other planets.

[IMAGE: Animated female scientist appears]

NARRATOR: But it isn’t enough to simply visit these extreme environments.

[IMAGE: Animated circles popup over the scientist with symbols for water, soil, rock and gas]

NARRATOR: Scientists also need to collect samples of water, soil, rock and gases in really uncomfortable and dangerous conditions

[IMAGE: A hazard radiation tri-foil sign appears]

NARRATOR: to analyze their composition and chemistry and see if they Harbor life.

[IMAGE: Animated symbols for life signs, rock and soil appear within the radiation tri-foil sign]

NARRATOR: This teaches us about the likely limits of life in other places

[IMAGE: Animated version of the Mars planet appears]

NARRATOR: like the arid soils on Mars

[IMAGE: Animated version of Mars cracks in half and the screen splits to show moons around Jupiter and Saturn]

NARRATOR: or caverns beneath the moons of Jupiter and Saturn.

[IMAGE: Animated full Mars planet reappears]

NARRATOR: But the best way to look for life on Mars is to go to Mars.

[IMAGE: An animated rocket with the year “2020” on the side launches]

NARRATOR: NASA will launch a new Rover to Mars in the summer of 2020

[IMAGE: An animated rover drops from the sky onto the Mars planet]

NARRATOR: and it arrives in 2021.

[IMAGE: An animated rover moves across the surface of Mars picking up rock samples]

NARRATOR: The rover will search for signs of past microbial life and collect samples of Martian rocks and soil.

[IMAGE: Zooms out from the animated Mars planet and into planet Earth]

NARRATOR: After collecting the rocks scientists need to figure out how to get them back to earth.

[IMAGE: Portrait of Lisa Pratt]

NARRATOR: Pratt works closely with a group called NASA’s Returns Sample Science Board

[Words appear: “NASA’s Returned Sample Science Board”]

NARRATOR: who are working to figure out how to pick up the Martian samples

[IMAGE: An animated mechanical arm reaches from the portrait of Lisa Pratt to pick up rock samples from Mars and put them on Earth]

NARRATOR: for return to Earth

[IMAGE: An animated satellite moves across the screen]

NARRATOR: using a probe that launches in 2026.

[IMAGE: An animated microscope drops from above]

NARRATOR: Studying these rocks

[IMAGE: An animated arm places a rock on the microscope and zooms in]

NARRATOR: could shed light on one of human history’s most profound questions.

[Words appear: In the zoomed-in view of the rock the words, “Are we alone?” appear]

NARRATOR: Are we alone?

[Close on IU logo]

[Words appear: Indiana University]


It seems to me that the most important question we as human beings could answer is, ‘are we alone?’

Lisa Pratt

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