Elon Musk's Bacteria-Covered Space Car May Be a 'Biothreat'

“The load of bacteria on the Tesla could be considered a biothreat—or a backup copy of life on Earth.”

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Feb 28 2018, 6:45pm

Image: SpaceX/Flickr

Earlier this month, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk launched his personal Tesla into space on top of the most powerful rocket in the world. At first glance, it would appear that the car was launched without any passengers aside from an empty space suit Musk dubbed ‘Starman.’

But Jay Melosh, a professor of Earth and planetary sciences at Purdue University, said the car is likely teeming with bacterial life collected during its manufacture and as Musk drove it around Los Angeles. In fact, it may be the largest collection of terrestrial bacteria ever sent into space, considering that rocket payloads are typically sterilized before launch.

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

Motherboard has reached out to SpaceX about whether the car was sterilized before launch. We will update this post if we hear back.

Melosh described the car as a possible contamination risk for Mars. Scientists go to great lengths to ensure that they aren’t introducing terrestrial bacteria into the Martian environment when they send rovers there. NASA even has an Office of Planetary Protection dedicated to making sure life on Earth doesn’t contaminate the pristine environment of other planets. This limits the odds that terrestrial microbes will ever be confused for Martian life, and also hedges against a microbial invasion of the Red Planet.

“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?” Melosh said. “We don’t know.”

Fortunately, the Tesla was never intended to land on a planet, and there’s a very small chance it will strike Mars in the next few million years. In this sense, any microbes on the car are actually more of a museum of Earthly bacteria than a biothreat, according to Purdue astronautics professor Alina Alexeenko.

“The load of bacteria on the Tesla could be considered a biothreat—or a backup copy of life on Earth,” Alexeenko said in a statement.

Read More: Did Life on Earth Come from Outer Space?

Alexeenko’s lab specializes in freeze-drying bacteria for long-term virus vaccine preservation. This technology is similar to conditions the bacteria on the car will experience in space.

Although most terrestrial life can’t survive the extreme conditions of space, research has shown that there are a number of exceptions. Perhaps the most famous is the tardigrade, which can survive space conditions and go up to 30 years without food or water.

There’s a theory called panspermia that life on Earth hitched a ride here on an asteroid, and some basic molecules seeded the planet with life. Given that Musk basically launched a bacteria museum into space and there’s a small chance it will crash back into Earth sometime in the next few million years, if life on Earth is ever completely wiped out, a red sports car may kickstart the process once again.