The launch of SpaceX Falcon Heavy, the long anticipated rocket, was one of the most spectacular events that took place in the beginning of the year. The payload of the rocket, Elon Musk’s own Cherry Red Tesla roadster, is already on its way towards the Red Planet, and beyond, towards the asteroid belt. However, many experts question whether launching the Tesla Roadster towards Mars was actually a good idea, as, if it’s not sterilized, the roadster may take Earth bacteria to the Red Planet.
However, the red roadster launched aboard the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket wasn’t intended to reach the Martian land, which also means that the regulations of NASA’s Planetary Protection Office don’t apply to it.
The Office of Planetary Protection is a department located within NASA, and its tasks promote responsibility during the exploration of the solar system. The Office of Planetary Protection, or OPP for short, is also part of the Office of Safety and Mission Assurance.
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The OPP’s tasks include developing plans that help protect the science, as well as explored environments outside our planet, as well as Earth, as part of every NASA mission. The department also strives to prevent biological contamination of other explored environments, and preserve other planets to remain in their natural states. Furthermore, the department aims to protect Earth’s biosphere, should extraterrestrial life exist anywhere else.
“We would find it very difficult to identify Mars life if we already contaminated the planet with Earth life,” Catharine Conley, NASA’s Planetary Protection officer told The Verge.
NASA formed this department during the 1960s, in order to prevent bringing Earth bacteria to other planets, when the U.S. and other countries started space exploration. The first planetary protection program started when the first Earth-origin satellite, Sputnik, launched into space in 1957.
“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 said in a statement. “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.”
Nevertheless, OPP regulation doesn’t apply to a spacecraft that doesn’t intend to land on Martian land, but instead, stay in orbit. Still, it doesn’t change the fact that maybe the vehicle wasn’t cleaned before it launched aboard the Falcon Heavy.
“Even if they radiated the outside, the engine would be dirty,” Melosh said. “Cars aren’t assembled clean. And even then, there’s a big difference between clean and sterile.”
According to Melosh, it’s highly unlikely that the vehicle will land on Mars and spread Earth bacteria, but that it could still potentially land. The vehicle is located in orbit between Earth and Mars, and in millions of years, it could strike our planet.
There are different factors that make it impossible to harbor life in space itself, such as extreme temperatures, low pressure, and cruel cosmic radiation. Still, those extreme conditions aren’t always fatal for bacteria. In fact, some bacteria types go dormant in the vacuum of space, and eventually, they wake up as the conditions improve.