It’s been weeks since SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk launched a Tesla Roadster into space with the help of the Falcon Heavy rocket. But since the Roadster did not go through the regular cleaning and sterilization processes that rocket payloads go through before being launched into space, a pair of Purdue University professors believe that the dummy called “Starman” might not be the only thing the car is carrying.
Speaking to Motherboard earlier this week, Purdue University professor of Earth and planetary sciences, Jay Melosh, said that he believes the Tesla Roadster sent into space last month was likely filled with bacteria collected from Musk’s trips around the Los Angeles area while driving the car, and possibly from its manufacturing process. Because rocket payloads generally need to be sterilized prior to their launch, a press release from Purdue added that the Roadster might be carrying the “largest [ever] load of earthly bacteria” launched into outer space.
“Even if they radiated the outside [of the Roadster], the engine would be dirty. Cars aren’t assembled clean. And even then, there’s a big difference between clean and sterile.”
The Purdue press release further explained that the possible prominence of bacteria aboard Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster would theoretically be a key concern for NASA’s Office of Planetary Protection. The office ensures the sterility of all spacecraft expected to land on other planets, so as to avoid the possibility of terrestrial organisms killing off another planet’s native organisms. Being that the Roadster was launched to stay in orbit, it is not under the Office of Planetary Protection’s jurisdiction, which explains why the car was not cleaned before it was launched.
While there’s a possibility that the Roadster will land on Mars, the odds of that happening are very small, and even if it ends up striking Earth, as both Motherboard and the Purdue press release stated, this might not happen until a few million years from now. But the microbes thought to be found on the car are being preserved in a similar way to the freeze-drying technology used on Earth to preserve examples of live virus vaccines, bacteria, and other microorganisms, according to Purdue aeronautics and astronautics professor Alina Alexeenko.
“The load of bacteria on the Tesla could be considered a biothreat—or a backup copy of life on Earth.”
Despite the long-term preservation of bacteria that might unintentionally be happening aboard Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster, Motherboard wrote that terrestrial life won’t be able to survive extended periods in space, with a few rare exceptions. And in an interesting aside, the publication also referenced the theory of panspermia, which suggests that life on Earth started when asteroids hit our planet and left some of life’s basic molecular ingredients. This could hint at the Roadster doing the very same thing millions of years from now if it crashes back to Earth, should all forms of terrestrial life be extinct by that time.
Meanwhile, those who want to track the location of the Tesla Roadster with “Starman” onboard can visit Where is Roadster, a website that records several real-time statistics, including the car’s speed and distance from Earth, and a “close approaches” page that lists the estimated dates when the Roadster may be near, or at the furthest point from Mars, Earth, and the sun.