Scientists: Musk's Roadster a 'Biothreat'

Scientists point out risk that car's Earthly bacteria might contaminate life on Mars
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 28, 2018 7:00 AM CST
Tesla Roadster Could Be a 'Biothreat' to Mars
Elon Musk's red Tesla sports car on the first ride of its kind.   (SpaceX via AP)

In the small chance that Elon Musk's space-exploring Tesla Roadster comes crashing back to Earth, experts say the planet will be just fine. It's a different story with Mars, where the car could become what one scientist calls a "biothreat." The Tesla, in a large orbit around the sun, is unlikely to get too close to Mars in the distant future, and if it does, it'll likely burn up in Mars' atmosphere. But Purdue University scientists say that even traces of the vehicle could contaminate or wipe out indigenous life on the Red Planet, should it exist. That's because, unlike spacecraft intended to land on celestial bodies, the Tesla did not undergo careful sterilization overseen by NASA's Office of Planetary Protection. With New Atlas pointing out the car was driven on public roads, scientists are calling it "the largest load of earthly bacteria to ever enter space."

"Even if they radiated the outside, the engine would be dirty," researcher Jay Melosh says in a release. "Cars aren't assembled clean. And even then, there's a big difference between clean and sterile." Life in space, with its extreme temperatures, low pressure, and cosmic radiation, will help kill some earthly bacteria. But some could lay dormant for millennia. Noting her office had little involvement in the launch of the Tesla, Planetary Protection Officer Lisa Pratt tells Space News that future commercial space missions will present similar problems, as it's "virtually impossible for a commercial mission to meet" current sterilization requirements for spacecraft. "We have to figure out how to work closely, how to move forward in a collaborative posture so we don't have another red Roadster up there in orbit." (Scientists are also annoyed by a fake star.)

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