A wealth of Earthly bacteria may have hitched a ride on Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster, which was shot into space on the inaugural launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket February 6.
This bacteria, scientists from Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana, say, could threaten native alien organisms and even act as a “backup” of life on Earth.
NASA’s Office of Planetary Protection ensures bacteria are wiped from any spacecraft intended to land on another planet. Sterilization is essential because bacteria can survive even in the vacuum of space.
But Elon Musk’s sports car was never supposed to land on a planet. It’s unlikely the SpaceX CEO’s personal Roadster was built sterile, so it’s probably chock-full of Earthly bacteria.
Jay Melosh, a professor of earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences at Purdue, explained in a statement: “Even if they radiated the outside, the engine would be dirty … Cars aren’t assembled clean. And even then, there’s a big difference between clean and sterile.”
Dormant in space
While intense cosmic radiation, low pressure and extreme temperatures make it impossible for animals like humans to survive in space, tiny bacteria can persist in a dormant state.
“The load of bacteria on the Tesla could be considered a biothreat, or a backup copy of life on Earth,” said Alina Alexeenko, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Purdue.
In the right conditions—like on a planet—these dormant bacteria could wake up.
The car, which overshot its planned goal of Mars’s orbit, will travel an elliptical path beyond the Red Planet, swinging back round to Earth’s orbit. It will continue on variations of this loop far into the future unless a changing orbit brings it in the path of say, a planet. If the car were to hit a planet like Mars, it could transmit Earthly bacteria.
“If there is an indigenous Mars biota, it’s at risk of being contaminated by terrestrial life,” said Melosh. “Would Earth’s organisms be better adapted, take over Mars and contaminate it so we don’t know what indigenous Mars was like, or would they be not as well adapted as the Martian organisms? We don’t know.”
The car is relatively unlikely to hit a planet any time soon. It’s hard to precisely predict the car’s orbit after a few hundred years. But, scientists from the University of Toronto have used sophisticated statistics to calculate only a 6 percent chance that the car will collide with Earth or Venus within the next million years.
They think a collision is likely, however, once the car’s voyage reaches the tens of millions of years. Whether any bacteria could survive quite that long in space is another question entirely.