As has been thoroughly reported on, Elon Musk – perhaps amusingly, perhaps wastefully, depending on your perspective – launched a cherry-red Tesla Roadster into space a few weeks back.
It’s recently been estimated that there’s a 6 percent chance that it’ll re-enter our planet’s atmosphere within the next million years. This would be tremendously preferable to it crashing anywhere else though: As pointed out by researchers at Purdue University, that Tesla is probably covered in terrestrial microbes, and an impact anywhere other than Earth could result in some rather unwanted contamination.
We don’t yet know if Mars currently harbors life, nor can we say whether life has ever existed on our rust-tinted neighbor. The more we learn about microbial biology, however – particularly its resilience and ubiquity on our own world – the more likely one or both of these options seem.
Incidentally, the ability of microbes to survive extreme environmental conditions suggests that any clinging to the Roadster may survive their long, arduous journey through space. If – despite being constantly bombarded by organic material-stripping radiation – said car and its payload did collide with Mars, it’s unclear as to what would happen next.
In a post on the university’s website, Alina Alexeenko, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Purdue, opined that “The load of bacteria on the Tesla could be considered a biothreat,” or, alternatively, “a backup copy of life on Earth.”
Professor Jay Melosh, an expert in earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences, suggested that “If there is an indigenous Mars biota, it’s at risk of being contaminated by terrestrial life.
“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 mused. “We don’t know.”
Space agencies are notoriously cautious when it comes to issues of accidental contamination. Spacecraft specifically designed to explore other worlds up close are comprehensively sterilized before they venture forth.
Those that aren’t are often intentionally piloted into the atmospheres of the Solar System’s gas giants to ensure their utter annihilation, so as to prevent them from accidentally crash-landing on a habitable world. Musk’s car certainly falls into this category, but unlike other spacecraft, it’s path through the frigid shadows is now determined not by us, but by natural forces alone.
It’s currently in an elliptical orbit around the Sun, one that will cross the Martian orbit twice every 18.8 months or so for the foreseeable future. It's highly unlikely that the Roadster will ultimately careen into the Red Planet, but if it does, we can all shake our collective fists at Musk, safe in the knowledge that there’s nothing we could have done ourselves to prevent the interplanetary slaughter.