Tesla in space could carry bacteria from Earth

February 27, 2018, Purdue University

A red Tesla convertible hitched a ride to space with a SpaceX rocket in early February, bringing with it what may be the largest load of earthly bacteria to ever enter space.

NASA's Office of Planetary Protection makes sure spacecraft planning to land on other planets are sterile. Much like an invasive species, organisms from Earth could thrive on another planet and wipe out native organisms. After all, it was that stopped the Martian invasion in H. G. Wells' fictional "War of the Worlds."

"If there is an indigenous Mars biota, it's at risk of being contaminated by terrestrial life," said Jay Melosh, a professor of earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences at Purdue University. "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."

But the Office of Planetary Protection doesn't regulate spacecraft that plan to stay in orbit; since the Tesla was never intended to land, it wasn't cleaned before takeoff.

"Even if they radiated the outside, the engine would be dirty," Melosh said. "Cars aren't assembled clean. And even then, there's a big difference between clean and sterile."

The Tesla could potentially land on Mars, although it's unlikely, he said. The car is in an orbit that crosses Earth's and Mars', and it will probably end up striking Earth, but it could be millions of years before that happens.

Extreme temperatures, low pressure and unfiltered cosmic radiation make space an inhospitable environment for living organisms. It doesn't always kill them, though – some bacteria go dormant in the vacuum of space and wake up again when conditions are right.

Alina Alexeenko, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Purdue, works in a lab that specializes in freeze-drying bacteria and biologics. The freeze-drying technology is used for long-term preservation of live virus vaccines, bacteria and biopharmaceuticals – a process similar to what live organisms experience in space.

"The load of bacteria on the Tesla could be considered a biothreat, or a backup copy of life on Earth," she said.

Explore further: Tesla shot into space will likely collide with Earth or Venus—in millions of years: researchers

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Display comments: newest first

5 / 5 (1) Feb 27, 2018
Someone at Tesla must of thought of this before putting that thing into their rocket. Didn't they at least vacuum the carpets and change out the air freshener tree hanging from the rearview mirror?
5 / 5 (1) Feb 27, 2018
Most rockets from 1950 to 1970 were ballistic missiles that were recycled for space missions. They were neither built to be sterile at all
2.5 / 5 (2) Feb 27, 2018
I'm pretty sure the car was detailed before launch.
5 / 5 (4) Feb 27, 2018
Life on Earth may have started when an alien Ferrari hit it.
Also, isn't it kind of hypocritical to fuss over this and at the same time plan to colonize other planets?
1 / 5 (3) Feb 27, 2018
Anything for a story, huh.

The car may hit Mars in a few million years by which time the entire vehicle will have been transposed into a semi-coherent vaporous dust cloud by cosmic radiation.

Let us not forget that there is no life on Mars. There has never been, as the planet has never had any atmosphere to speak of. Any Earth life that ever gets to Mars will quickly die, including humans. Mars was recently compare to the Atacama Desert. I can assure you it is far, far worse than that.

Folks really need to stop tripping and face reality. We need to solve our problems right here on this world. I can assure you that if we cannot solve our problems on this world, it isn't going to be easier on Mars. We are the cause of all of our problems and anywhere we go, there we will find ourselves.
Thorium Boy
1.1 / 5 (7) Feb 27, 2018
Launch Musk on an unending mission to wherever.
not rated yet Feb 27, 2018
And don't forget to watch out for the flying fish!!
not rated yet Feb 27, 2018
Why not? Anything's possible.
4.3 / 5 (3) Feb 27, 2018
The "largest load of earthly bacteria" ever launched into space was probably in the guts of the record 8 man crew of STS-61A.
Mark Thomas
4.7 / 5 (3) Feb 27, 2018
"Even if they radiated the outside, the engine would be dirty," Melosh said.

I guarantee the engine is not dirty. Same goes for the gas tank and the exhaust system. Hint: Tesla makes electric vehicles without these components.

"If there is an indigenous Mars biota, it's at risk of being contaminated by terrestrial life," said Jay Melosh

I agree that any planetary scientist worth his salt should be concerned with forward contamination, but the Roadster doesn't get all that close to Mars in its current orbit. You are also forgetting about the stream of bacteria Earth is likely throwing into space like a sprinkler along with a little atmospheric leakage. The trend of discoveries over the years suggests the solar system is probably not as pristine as we once believed.

Speculating wildly, I see the USS Elon Musk will have the honor of picking it up Elon's Roadster in a century or two, before it ever gets all that close to Mars. :-)
5 / 5 (2) Feb 28, 2018
"If there is an indigenous Mars biota, it's at risk of being contaminated by terrestrial life,"

Would a car worth's of Earth life outdo any life established for aeons on any other rock? Can I out-pachinko a Japanese salaryman, first time? Not without a healthy dose of luck.
1 / 5 (4) Feb 28, 2018
It was a stupid publicity stunt to begin with. Musk is a scam artist, living off subsidies.
5 / 5 (6) Feb 28, 2018
Ya know...if - in a MILLION years - we haven't got the tech to prevent this thing from crashing into Mars (i.e. neither the spacefaring capability to just collect it at our leisure and put it in a museum nor the Mars-defense tech on the ground to shield anyone there from meteor/car strikes) then I'd hazard humanity has had some issues in the meantime (like self-annihilation) that'd render any 'Mars ecology concerns' moot.
not rated yet Feb 28, 2018
Anything that is exposed to earth atmosphere before and during launch cannot be sterile.

edit: Final irony. In the year 23300 man has long since conquered disease, and then lost his natural resistances since they are no longer necessary. Along comes the Tesla bomb which wipes out all humanity.
5 / 5 (1) Feb 28, 2018
Long, long before the unlikely event of the car crashing into Mars humans will be on their 10th attempt to see what bacteria (and other living things) from Earth can survive on Mars.
Mark Thomas
not rated yet Mar 02, 2018
I wonder if the USS Elon Musk, i.e., the spacecraft destined to pick up Musk's Roadster, will be an interplanetary or an interstellar spacecraft? :-)
not rated yet Mar 05, 2018
We'll be extinct before the end of the 21st century, and no one will be on Mars before then.

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