NASA Announces New Planetary Protection Officer

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Dr. J. Nick Benardini

NASA named Dr. J. Nick Benardini as the agency Planetary Protection Officer within the Office of Safety and Mission Assurance, effective June 7.

“We’re excited to have Nick on board in this role,” said Chief of Safety and Mission Assurance Russ DeLoach. “As we continue exploring our solar system and sending spacecraft, rovers and eventually people to other worlds, we have to remain vigilant in our Planetary Protection standards to preserve the integrity of those environments, as well as our own. I have no doubt Nick is up to leading this task.”

As the Planetary Protection Officer, Benardini will oversee the responsible exploration of the solar system by implementing and developing efforts that protect the science, explored environments and Earth. Planetary Protection is concerned with forward contamination of another world with life from Earth and backward contamination of Earth with a life-form from another world. Forward contamination is assessed by looking for evidence of Earth-like environments on other planetary bodies and considering the potential for a terrestrial microbe, transported on a spacecraft, to find a refuge and remain viable in an extraterrestrial setting. NASA requires every planetary mission to meet stringent requirements for biological cleanliness during assembly and launch of spacecraft. Backward contamination is assessed by looking at each step in the chain of contact from collecting samples on another planetary body through transporting and landing on Earth. NASA carefully analyzes the potential for an as-yet-unknown extraterrestrial life-form to be released on Earth as a result of returning samples for scientific study.

Benardini most recently served as the Planetary Protection lead for the Mars Sample Retrieval Lander mission and consultant to NASA Headquarters’ Office of Planetary Protection. He has conducted research as a Principal Investigator in the field of environmental microbiology, studying extreme environments for the past 13 years. He has led both applied research and field studies in conducting molecular and traditional microbiological community analysis.

Benardini has experience in leading and managing Planetary Protection missions as a cost account manager, overseeing and leading requirements definition and decomposition, developing implementation strategies, documenting project compliance, and conducting verification and validation activities/bioassays. He has been instrumental in planning and leading verification activities for the Mars 2020, InSight, Mars Science Laboratory, JUNO and Mars Exploration Rovers. He served as the Assembly, Test and Launch Operations Planetary Protection lead for the Mars Science Laboratory mission and the Planetary Protection lead for the InSight 2016, Mars 2022 and Mars Sample Retrieval Lander missions. As a senior Subject Matter Expert, he has been a lead author on over 24 peer review publications, two book chapters, 51 conference publications and presentations, and 24 engineering technical documents.

He holds a Ph.D. in microbiology, molecular biology and biochemistry from the University of Idaho and a Bachelor of Science in microbiology from the University of Arizona.