SpaceX could contaminate the entire Solar System with its missions

“Elon Musk’s mission could be more catastrophic than a bold step,” said Bayfordbury Observatory director Samantha Rolfe

. Expansion plans by government agencies and private companies continue in full swing. Among them,  SpaceX  is one of the best known and is among the largest private representatives of this type of mission.

Elon Musk races to deploy his  100-person Starship spacecraft on voyages across the Solar System, and  Mars is likely to be one of the first targets .

Now the astrobiological community is starting to worry about what we will be able to “export” to the visited worlds. The problem is that, according to many scientists, this poses a huge astrobiological risk.

Illustration of the Starship spacecraft putting the first women on the Moon with the Artemis mission. Credits: SpaceX

“Elon Musk’s mission could be more catastrophic than a bold step in space exploration. The announcement that we are close to having manned spacecraft crossing the Solar System is exciting, but I cannot help but have moral reservations about it; my concern is primarily astrobiological,” said astrobiologist and director of the Bayfordbury Observatory, Samantha Rolfe.

According to her, our spacecraft, landers, rovers, probes and the like can contaminate extraterrestrial environments with various terrestrial microbes and germs, and this could be a huge risk to the biology of other worlds, in addition to providing false positives for extraterrestrial life.

“Mars is a prime candidate for hosting some sort of microbial life. However, there is a risk that microbe-ridden humans could contaminate the Red Planet. And that could threaten alien life or even make it impossible to find out whether any microbes are of Martian or terrestrial origin,” explained the astrobiologist.

Dr. Rolfe gave as an example the case of the Israeli space probe Beresheet, which  crashed on the Moon and may have scattered thousands of tardigrades and DNA samples  across the surface of our satellite. Also during the Apollo missions, NASA astronauts left not only footprints, but all sorts of biological material and even human feces.

Tardigrade. Credits: Eye of Science / Nicole Ottawa / Oliver Meckes
“SpaceX should postpone sending people to Mars until we have the results of the next life detection missions, the Mars and ExoMars rovers”, says the astrobiologist.

“Elon Musk (the owner of SpaceX) doesn’t seem too worried about contamination. If he took this matter seriously, he would expect to see on his website something like ‘SpaceX Planetary Protection’ (as there is NASA’s Planetary Protection division). But that’s not the case,” she added.

She also believes the problem is not just about  possible life on Mars . “Astronauts would also be exposed to deep space radiation during the six-month journey to the planet, which has no atmosphere to protect them. Radiation technology is still in its infancy. Add to that the environmental impact of these missions, releasing a lot of carbon dioxide. The risks of contaminating Mars, injuring astronauts and damaging the environment are very real.”

Artist’s illustration of a colony on Enceladus. Credits: Wilson Paes / Meteorite Gallery
According to scientists, there are two types of planetary contamination: reverse (from space to Earth) and forward (from Earth to other worlds).

A working group called the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) meets regularly to develop guidelines on interplanetary contamination, building on the  Outer Space Treaty , which was ratified in October 1967 but only prohibits weapons in space.

According to NASA Planetary Protection Director Catharine Conley, the goal should always be to improve protocols for space missions: manned systems to travel beyond Earth orbit.”

Images: (cover-Illustration) / SpaceX / Eye of Science / Nicole Ottawa / Oliver Meckes / Wilson Paes / Meteorite Gallery

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