We regret to inform you Elon Musk’s widely beloved Tesla Roadster could contaminate Mars.
Scientists at Purdue University have released a statement on the sports car and its captain, the now-infamous Starman. The researchers are concerned the car could be carrying an enormous load of bacteria from Earth, which could spell trouble in the slim chance it crashes into Mars.
“If there is an indigenous Mars biota, it’s at risk of being contaminated by terrestrial life,” Jay Melosh, a professor of earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences at Purdue University, says in the press release. “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.”
Melosh continued: “Even if [SpaceX] radiated the outside, the engine would be dirty. Cars aren’t assembled clean. And even then, there’s a big difference between clean and sterile.”
NASA has an Office of Planetary Protection that is primarily tasked with ensuring earthly spacecraft doesn’t contaminate other worlds. But the department doesn’t regulate spacecraft in orbit, and since the Roadster was never supposed to land, it wasn’t wiped of bacteria before takeoff. Inverse has reached out to SpaceX to see if the aerospace company took any measures to clean the vehicle before liftoff, but as of this writing, we have not heard back.
“The load of bacteria on the Tesla could be considered a biothreat, or a backup copy of life on Earth,” Alina Alexeenko, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Purdue, said in a statement.
NASA’s new planetary protection officer Lisa Pratt seems similarly disenchanted with the space car.
“We were supporting [SpaceX’s] launch, but we did not have a planetary protection plan in place,” she said in a presentation to the Planetary Science Advisory Committee, SpaceNews reports. “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.”
Even in the case the Tesla did crash into Mars — which is very unlikely based on its trajectory — it “could be millions of years before that happens,” according to the researchers at Purdue. So fingers crossed that the literal worst-case scenario doesn’t happen, and that Musk’s admittedly well-executed PR stunt doesn’t destroy the solar system.