Elon Musk hoped that the Tesla Roadster his company, SpaceX, launched into outer space Tuesday would land on Mars. But now, it’s heading toward the asteroid belt.
After a final rocket boost, the car, along with its mannequin dressed in a SpaceX-designed spacesuit, wound up off course, farther out into space than the company had expected, after it ejected from SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket on its first test flight. The Roadster might bump into some space dust and disintegrate a little, but in all likelihood, it’ll be just fine. The Roadster will orbit the sun for the next million years or so and then could crash land into the Sun.
“Whenever you see an asteroid belt in movies, like 'Star Wars,' it looks like they’re 10 feet apart. They’re not,” said Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “When you're on an asteroid, the next-closest asteroid looks like a distant star. It’s mostly empty space.”
SpaceX was aiming to get the car into a heliocentric orbit roughly the same as Mars’. After cruising through space for six hours or so — an attempt to show off a special orbital technique for the U.S. Air Force, according to The Verge — the rocket carrying the car completed one final engine burn, a boost that put its orbit out past Mars’ and into the asteroid belt.
For most of its orbit, the car will be floating between Mars and Jupiter. But it will pass through Earth’s orbit every once in a while and have “very rare close approaches to the Earth and Mars,” explained Alan Fitzsimmons, an astronomer at Queen's University Belfast.
But as time drags on — in, say, a million years from now, give or take — the car’s regular orbit might be disrupted. “On a million-year timescale, it will probably be fall into the Sun. Or it could be pulled out by Jupiter’s orbit and fall out of the solar system,” McDowell said.
Musk half-hoped that the car, which is blaring David Bowie’s "Space Oddity" in the soundless vacuum of space, would land on Mars, though he admitted in a press conference before launch that there was only an “extremely tiny” chance that it would wind up on the red planet.
And although the car is now a little farther out than SpaceX expected, experts said it’s just another sign of the mission’s success. “It seems pretty reasonable to me that if you’re going to test a heavy launch vehicle, you see exactly what it can do by throwing out your payload as far as possible,” Fitzsimmons said.
And the mission was a stunning success: SpaceX landed two out of the Falcon Heavy’s three boosters back on Earth after launching the car into space. Those rockets, which are reusable and cheaper to make than others, could revolutionize space travel.
Regardless of where the car ends up, the asteroid hunters here on Earth will want to know about it. McDowell even hopes SpaceX will release its orbital data on the car so astronomers can look out for it.