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NASA official battles the microbes of space travel

Here's a brief biography on Catharine Conley, NASA's planetary protection officer, that looks at what her job entails:

"Her job is as serious as a NASA post can be. In addition to protecting potential extraterrestrial life and monitoring for contamination on trips back to Earth, the protection office oversees protocols that assure Earth ships are sterile enough on departure that if they do find evidence of anything living, it won't be some Earth-based organism that was missed during the cleaning process and dragged across the solar system.

Also important is logging which pathogens humans might be carrying at launch, so that if someone gets sick on the way back from a theoretical future trip to Mars, NASA can quickly determine whether it's a garden variety human bug or some new kind of Martian flu turning a homeward-bound space vehicle into a "plague ship."

So far, the worries of the planetary protection program have focused mainly on keeping probes and equipment sterile before takeoff, or "forward contamination."
 
 

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