Outer space is often depicted as a harsh environment. It’s effectively an airless vacuum, and anything residing there would be subjected to high amounts of cosmic radiation and frigid temperatures. We’re lucky to live on planet Earth, as its rich atmosphere provides us with the air we breathe, blocks harmful space radiation, and insulates us from the cold void above our heads. But viruses and other microbes take advantage of this too…
The current circumstances surrounding COVID-19 have raised some particularly interesting questions surrounding how viruses and other microbes survive in outer space. Adding to that, we’re always sending spacecraft to other worlds, so could it be possible that we’re cross contaminating those worlds with Earthly viruses and microbes? These are interesting questions indeed, and certainly worth investigating.
Firstly, it should be noted that all missions destined for other words and the workers that build them are carefully sterilized during production. After workers walk through a sterilization chamber, they can then work on the mission in question. As it’s being assembled, those same workers use alcoholic wipes to sterilize the components, one-by-one.
After the completed mission takes shape, it may enter an extreme sterilization process called dry heat sterilization, depending on the sensitivity of the sensors onboard. This is exactly what it sounds like – the object in question is loaded into a room where it can be baked to 120º Celsius (or 248º Fahrenheit) for up to 30 hours in an effort to kill as many bacterial spores as possible.
In some cases, other methods are used, but no matter the method used, it’s virtually impossible to eliminate all microbes. All we can do is try to eradicate as many as possible.
As for viruses, the good news is that viruses need a host to survive, and most viruses can only survive for about a week without a host under the best possible conditions. In outer space, there are no hosts, and the harsh environment is a far cry from “the best possible conditions.” That said, viruses don’t last long in space at all – and almost certainly not long enough for a spacecraft to reach another world.