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Protecting the planet

Catharine “Cassie” Conley has the coolest job title at NASA: She’s the agency’s planetary protection officer. (The best title used to be “director of the universe,” but a reconfiguration a few years back eliminated that job description, she says.)

Since 2006, Conley (right) has been charged with preventing Earth from being overrun by extraterrestrial microbes or other contaminants brought back by NASA explorers. She also makes sure spacecraft don’t carry stowaways that could spread to other planets or later be mistaken for E.T. “I’m a policeman, basically,” she says.

Only one other person in the world — her counterpart at the European Space Agency — has full-time responsibility for guarding planets, moons and other celestial bodies from contamination. “It’s unfortunately a very small police force,” Conley says.

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