In 2018, Elon Musk sent its Tesla Roadster into space with a “Starman” dummy in it. Scientists say the car could crash into Earth.
Over three years ago, Elon Musk’s SpaceX successfully launched its first Falcon Heavy rocket into space with Musk’s personal 2008 cherry Tesla Roadster on board.
Falcon Heavy launch sent Musk’s Roadster on a voyage toward Mars orbit.
Starman and the Roadster circle the sun once every 557 Earth days, according to the tracking site whereisroadster.com.
As of today, the cherry Roadster has covered nearly 1.7 billion miles (2.7 billion km) in space. That’s far enough to drive all of the Earth’s roads 72.3 times.
About 7 months ago, Starman and Tesla made their first Mars flyby, passing less than 5 million miles from it.
The car is now about 170 million miles (273 million km, 1.82 AU) from Mars. It’s moving away from the planet at a speed of about 36,000 mi/h (58,000 km/h).
If the battery is still working, Starman has listened to Space Oddity over 320,000 times since he launched in one ear, and to Life On Mars? over 431,000 times in his other ear.
The event had surely captured global attention, but not all of it had proven welcome.
The Planetary Society’s Jason Davis had worried over the planetary protection risk posed by Musk’s un-sterilized car crashing into Mars and sprinkling debris covered with bacteria, viruses, and fungi all over the red planet. As far as we know, alien microbes may be hiding out in Martian soil. And such a fate would muddle scientific efforts to search for life on Mars.
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However, according to a scientific study titled “The random walk of cars and their collision probabilities with planets” that risk now appears minimal.
But still, scientists suggest the car could be headed for a hell of a crash.
A team of researchers from the University of Toronto led by astrophysicist Hanno Rein tried to figure out Roadster’s ultimate fate. Thus, they performed a series of simulations tracking Tesla’s path through the solar system over the next 3 million years.
This modeling work gives the Roadster a 6 percent chance of crashing into Earth within a few tens of millions of years and a 2.5 percent chance of hitting Venus during that same stretch.
“Although we are not able to tell on which planet the car will ultimately end up, we’re comfortable saying it won’t survive in space for more than a few tens of millions of years,” lead author Hanno Rein, director of the University of Toronto Scarborough’s Centre for Planetary Science, said in a statement.
To arrive at that conclusion, Rein and his team ran a series of software simulations based on NASA orbital tracking data. The simulation software, called REBOUND, allowed the research team to fast-forward the car’s likeliest orbital paths through the solar system over the next few million years.
That data suggest Musk’s car will fly out past Mars orbit, spending very little time there, and then swing back around, over and over again.
So, the roadster will continue indefinitely, orbiting the sun in an elliptical orbit, until a planet captures it. Technically the car will never be within sight of Mars. It is merely intercepting the orbit of the planet not orbiting it or using it as a slingshot.
There has been some concern that radiation will damage the car in the far-flung future but most likely it will be peppered by small bits of space debris then be captured by a planet.
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As for the car’s near future, scientists have enough data. Its first close encounter with Earth will occur in 2091. During that encounter, the car will be within one lunar distance of our planet. You may even see it with the right kind of telescope. The car is not large enough for people to distinguish it from the countless objects that constantly pass us. But the car’s reflectance should set it apart.
After its third Earth flyby, the Roadster’s path will get increasingly chaotic and unpredictable due to Earth’s gravitational tug that will cause small changes in some of the car’s orbital parameters every time it comes close.
Regardless of where its exact demise occurs, the Roadster only has a few million years to live. And when that happens, most, or the entire Tesla will burn up in the atmosphere.
Two other astronomers — Gianluca Masi of The Virtual Telescope Project and Michael Schwartz of Tenagra Observatories, Ltd. — also used JPL data to track the Roadster.
They even photographed the car flying beyond the moon moving at a speed of roughly 25,000 miles per hour.