A Tesla in space

Dave Mosher is a science reporter who has written for Scientific American, Popular Mechanics, National Geographic News and Discovery.com. He joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss planetary protection.


Dave Mosher is a science reporter who's written for and discovery.com.

Throughout his career, he has watched humans and robots launch into space, flown over the North Pole to catch a total solar eclipse, and toured a cutting-edge nuclear reactor.

He joins us now to discuss planetary protection.

What is planetary protection?

Planetary protection is exactly what it sounds like.

It's about protecting Earth from all the stuff out there -- in particular, microbes, alien microbes -- and also protecting other planets, like Mars or these moons of Saturn and Jupiter that might be habitable.

We don't want to muck those up, and we don't want those planets and their life to muck our planet up, too.

So that's what it's all about.


Well, we sent an object into space recently, Elon Musk did, his cherry-red roadster, and it had a little astronaut on it, and there were these amazing photographs and video that was coming back.

What happens to that car?

That is the million-dollar question -- or billion-dollar question, for NASA, certainly.

NASA puts a lot of effort into planning out missions, you know, even decades in advance, more than a decade in advance, like, what happens to the spacecraft, how are we going to ensure that it's sterile?

Because if you're sending something to Mars and it's detecting life, which is what the space agency is trying to do with the Mars 2020 rover, you're trying to send it to Mars to look for signs of life -- the last thing you want on that rover are bacteria, viruses, fungi, other things that come from Earth to sort of give you a false positive.

Now we have a Tesla that is absolutely covered in germs just flying through space.

And it's crossing Mars' orbit basically twice every 30 years.

So that is an issue.

The good news is that someone did the calculations on this orbit.

Even Musk wasn't...He was sort of flippant about it.

I think he just didn't have access to all the information at the time.

But we've later learned that Mars is kind of the last places-- one of the last places it can crash.

Most likely, it's going to hit Earth within the next 100 million years or so.

There's like a six-point --

Okay, so the car comes back to Earth.

Does it survive 100 million years?

What about the radiation in space?

Does it rip it apart?

This is another great question.

So you've got rubbers and paints and things like that.

You've got tiny little... You've got cosmic rays.

You've got all this stuff in space.

I think it's not going to be looking very good in 100 million years, but it'll probably have crashed by then.

There's a lot of debate about what's going to happen to it, but if you look at what happened to the space shuttle and other objects we've sent up to space but come back to later, it's going to accumulate these, like, dings.

It's going to start looking like the Moon, basically.

It's going to kind of bleach out.

It's going to have little dings all over it.

It's certainly not going to be red looking, I think, in 100 million years.

Don't we already monitor everything that's kind of bigger than a softball that's floating around to see if there's any risk of it falling back to Earth and so forth?

So is there going to be concern about -- I mean, it's very expensive, and not many people are going to do it, but what we send up to space and what we're allowed to throw out there?

So, this is an ongoing problem with human space flight.

We're trying to keep track of all these objects in space, but more and more and more keep getting launched out there.

So we can track them with radar and figure out their orbits and kind of calculate where there might be a collision or a problem, but there's only going to be more objects in space, so we have to think a little bit more, you know, and this Tesla is a good example, of, you know, 'Should we actually launch that?'

Or maybe we should take a little care on the orbit here so it doesn't go through this group of satellites or cross this planet, because space is only going to get more crowded as launch costs lower and we're able to do more with our money.

I can't remember which movie it was -- maybe it was 'Gravity' or something.

It was a totally fake scene, but some satellite splitting up into thousands of pieces and hurtling around, and they kind of caused these ripple effects, right, but even though it probably doesn't happen like the movie, it's still interesting that there's just a lot of space junk out there.

Yeah, so this runaway scenario that you described has a name, and it's called the Kessler effect.

And it was named back during the Space Race.

But the concern was that you launch so much stuff that in these low Earth orbits or even high Earth orbit, where you have a lot of communication satellites, you know, there's bolts, and there's little pieces of debris, and there's empty rocket bodies.

One hits one thing, and another hits another, and suddenly, you have this domino effect, and suddenly, we can't put anything in that orbit because it's just so strewn with debris.

I've actually spoken to some of the defense people about this issue.

They're concerned about it.

They know about it.

They're aware of it.

But they say, 'Look, you know, we don't need any like tractor beams or highfalutin technology to control this.

All we need to do is just keep track of the stuff that's up there and be thoughtful about how we launch things and where we launch them and using which technologies.'

They're confident that we can keep this in check indefinitely as long as we're just thinking clearly about what we're launching.

So the Tesla is a bit of an interesting item to launch, but it's also not hanging around Earth.

It's going to swing by Earth once every 30 years or so.

All right.

Dave Mosher, thanks so much.

You're welcome.