Space Tesla May Contaminate Mars: Here's How NASA Protects Other Planets From Earth Bacteria

Mysterious new purple aurora named 'Steve' by scientists
Planetary protection is something that NASA takes seriously. Every interplanetary mission is guided and designed based on planetary protection principles aiming to prevent biological contamination of solar system bodies.  ( NASA/JPL-Caltech )

Scientists believe that the Tesla Roadster now floating in deep space was not sterilized. In this case, Elon Musk's car could contaminate Mars with bacteria it brought from Earth.

The red convertible that was launched into space from SpaceX Falcon Heavy, was not intended to land on Mars, so it was not covered by the regulations of NASA's Planetary Protection Office.

Preventing Contamination In The Solar System 

There is a unit within NASA that is devoted to the promotion of responsible exploration of the solar system — the Office of Planetary Protection, which is part of the Office of Safety and Mission Assurance.

The OPP is tasked to implement and develop efforts to protect the science, explored environments, and Earth in every NASA mission.

It is also responsible for preserving NASA's ability to study other worlds as they exist in their natural states; avoiding the biological contamination of explored environments; and ensuring that prudent precautions are undertaken to protect Earth's biosphere just in case life does exist elsewhere.

History Of Planetary Protection

Planet protection started in the 1960s around the same time when countries started exploring outer space. The first planetary protection program was initiated by the Committee on Space Research after the first Earth-origin satellite, Sputnik, was launched in 1957.

A decade after, the signing of the Outer Space Treaty has formed the basis of international space laws and served as the guideline for nations engaging in outer space exploration.

The treaty was signed by the United States, United Kingdom, and the then Soviet Union. The main objective of the treaty is to ensure that biological contamination is avoided at all cost in all space missions launched from Earth.

The rule of thumb of planetary protection is to prevent the contamination of places and frontiers explored in the solar system.

"We would find it very difficult to identify Mars life if we already contaminated the planet with Earth life," says Catharine Conley, NASA's Planetary Protection officer.

Protect All Missions

Compliance with planetary protection requirements is mandatory for all NASA missions to avoid forward contamination or contamination when microbes from Earth are transported on an outbound spacecraft to other planetary bodies.

Protection procedures are based on the mission type — landers, rovers flyers and orbiters, the mission destination, and planetary bodies that may be encountered.

Likewise, missions are also required to follow specific design and planning processes.

The OPP's first directive is for missions to avoid impact of target bodies and minimize the probability of contamination through launching of pre- and post-launch protocols.

Spacecraft traveling to target bodies with the potential to support Earth life are required to undergo stringent cleaning and sterilization processes, and higher operating restrictions. These include category IV and V missions to Mars and Europa. Missions to asteroids and the moon are not as strict.

Other approaches are also used such as cleanroom usage, aseptic assembly of aircraft, and sterilization of spacecraft components.

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