Space

The Tesla Roadster could be the dirtiest manmade object in space

The spacefaring Tesla Roadster may be the dirtiest thing ever sent into orbit
The spacefaring Tesla Roadster may be the dirtiest thing ever sent into orbit
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The spacefaring Tesla Roadster may be the dirtiest thing ever sent into orbit
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The spacefaring Tesla Roadster may be the dirtiest thing ever sent into orbit
Last image transmitted from the Roadster
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Last image transmitted from the Roadster
The Roadster was launched into space atop the Falcon Heavy
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The Roadster was launched into space atop the Falcon Heavy
The Roadster inside the rocket fairing
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The Roadster inside the rocket fairing

SpaceX's launch of a Tesla Roadster into deep space may have got 10 out of 10 for style and PR, but it looks as if it got one out of 10 for cleanliness. According to scientists at Purdue University, the electric sports car and its plastic mannequin driver may be the dirtiest unmanned objects ever launched into orbit – carrying an unprecedented amount of bacteria that could one day contaminate Mars.

Anyone who's ever bought a second-hand car knows that they're likely to find unpleasant surprises under the seats or tucked in the glove box. In fact, if you were to commission a forensic analysis of the average used vehicle with its collection of skin flakes and dried mucus, you'd probably never get into another one without a hazmat suit on.

Not surprisingly, spacecraft tend to be a bit more hygienic. International agreements require any unmanned probe that is likely to land on another planet, moon, asteroid, or other celestial body meet rigorous sterilization standards inside and out to minimize the chance of terrestrial microbes ending up colonizing another world. At the minimum, this would complicate the job of scientists seeking alien life, but it could have worse effects.

The Roadster was launched into space atop the Falcon Heavy
The Roadster was launched into space atop the Falcon Heavy

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

Legally, this requirement doesn't apply to spacecraft that won't land on other planets, like those that orbit the Earth or the Sun, but space engineering is already a pretty scrubbed enterprise with satellites being assembled in special clean rooms to keep delicate equipment from being contaminated by dust, dirt, and other undesirables. Ultimately, the main difference between a lander and a non-lander is that the former are built to withstand being steamed in a giant autoclave designed to kill off any microscopic hitchhikers.

By comparison, the Tesla Roadster is extremely dirty. It's an ordinary production car that was driven personally be SpaceX founder Elon Musk on public roads and wasn't specially cleaned before the launch – not that that would have helped much.

Last image transmitted from the Roadster
Last image transmitted from the Roadster

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

Of course, the Roadster is in a heliocentric orbit that will likely keep it circling the Sun for tens of millions of years until the gravitational influence of Earth, Mars, and Jupiter disturb it. And it's now much more sterile than it was. Every moment until it eventually burns up in the atmosphere of the Earth or Mars or plunges into the Sun, it's being pelted with micrometeoroids and bombarded by hard ultraviolet and cosmic rays as it bakes in temperatures of up to 260° F (127° C).

Such conditions will kill any bacteria on the car's surface, and as the plastic body disintegrates under this cosmic onslaught, there will be fewer places to hide. However, some places inside the frame and drivetrain will still provide tiny protective havens where microbes can freeze dry and go dormant for thousands or perhaps millions of years.

The Roadster inside the rocket fairing
The Roadster inside the rocket fairing

The fear is that there is a remote chance that fragments of the Roadster might land on Mars in the distant future, though it's more likely to burn up completely in the thin Martian atmosphere. But Alina Alexeenko, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Purdue sees this as a glass half empty/half full situation.

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

Source: Purdue University

15 comments
niio
'"Even if they radiated the outside, the engine would be dirty," says Melosh.' Doesn't he know that the 'engine' is an electric motor, and no more dirty than a wheel bearing or any other moving part?
SimonClarke
Well done Niio, that was going to be my first comment. Second is the authors reference to the drive train, it's not like a gearbox, prop shaft and differential of a conventional car. The motor output rotates the outer portion of the differential, that's it, it is all sealed. Also does the author know for certain that the car wasn't 'cleaned' before it was sent aloft?
loring
Great. the majority of the skinflakes, hair and DNA in the car are Elon Musks. One day we may may meet aliens from planet X where the car payload crashed and started a new lifeform. The aliens will all be super bright descendents of Musk, each with a two or three major technology companies redesigning the universe and space travel. Worse, they may all look like Elon Musk babies.
kenkeyessr
Nice fearmonger article was written by a possible insomniac.
kokkie
Do the people think they ever disinfected the Apollo or space shuttle missions before they launched them.
Bob
It is hard for most of us to comprehend bio-contamination. I use the analogy that its like everything is covered in wet paint. Touch it and its on you. Touch something else and it is also spread to that object. Now consider that the paint can reproduce and grow even more wet paint.
BrianK56
Space is big enough to accommodate all the microbes we can throw at it.
Rustin Lee Haase
Although this article may be true, the context is just plain stupid. Elon and SpaceX plan to DELIBERATELY contaminate Mars with life from Earth and at a massive scale with colonization. Whether a few microbes get there ahead of humanity is irrelevant.
danielpf
This is a rather ridiculous study ignoring that big meteorites having impacted on Earth have ejected bacteria over billions years spreading life-loaded rocks at least in the inner solar system. We know of many Moon and Mars meteorites having landed on Earth, and obviously the reverse should after Earth received asteroids.
aksdad
The longest test of microbes exposed directly to the vacuum, temperature, and radiation of space was done in an experiment mounted on the exterior of International Space Station ("Expose" on the EuTEF platform) and lasted 18 months. Surprisingly, "some—but not all—of those most robust microbial communities from extremely hostile regions on Earth are also partially resistant to the even more hostile environment of outer space". A percentage of some of the test samples were revived successfully after the experiment. The test samples were rock lichen (fungi) specifically picked because they live in extremely cold, harsh environments on earth. How long they can ultimately last was not determined. Could they survive for millions of years riding an asteroid or a Tesla? It seems unlikely, but no one knows. Is the bacteria on Musk's Tesla a "a biothreat, or a backup copy of life on Earth"? If it isn't rock lichen and doesn't land on anything remotely hospitable for millions of years, probably not.
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