Love it or loathe it, there’s a car currently on its way beyond the orbit of Mars. If predictions are correct, however, the car may not even survive a year in space due to radiation.
That claim was made by Indiana University chemist William Carroll over on Live Science. He said Musk’s Tesla Roadster car, launched Tuesday, February 6 on the new Falcon Heavy rocket, was at death’s door.
“All of the organics will be subjected to degradation by the various kinds of radiation that you will run into there,” he said.
"Those organics, in that environment, I wouldn't give them a year."
Organics here refers to the parts of the car that include carbon bonds, such as its plastics and its frame, made of carbon fiber. Incoming radiation will tear through these bonds like a knife at random, causing parts of the car and the Starman mannequin to disintegrate.
We’re protected from radiation in space – in the form of cosmic rays from supernovae, solar radiation, and more – by our planet’s magnetic field. Once you leave Earth’s magnetosphere, however, you’re subjected to the full brunt of everything in space.
The Galileo spacecraft, for example, which orbited Jupiter from 1995 to 2003, had some serious issues as a result of radiation (albeit blasted significantly more by the harsh radiation environment of Jupiter). These included one of its cameras producing white images, and leaks inside the spacecraft that caused its computer to reset.
“As predicted, the spacecraft began to suffer major anomalies just as it was exceeding its radiation design dose,” a study looking at the effects of radiation on Galileo noted.
Musk’s Tesla Roadster, however, has no sort of radiation protection like Galileo did. Instead, it will be blasted by all incoming radiation, and suffer the consequences.
It’s likely that much of the car will be worn away by these high-energy particles. Eventually, only its inorganic parts will remain – things like its aluminum frame, and certain glass parts.
“Without shielding or an atmosphere to protect it, cosmic rays, as well as high radiation from the Van Allen belt, could fry the circuitry,” Gizmodo noted.
There’s also a chance the car could be hit by some sort of micrometeoroid or space debris, shattering it into pieces. Originally it looked like the car was headed for the asteroid belt, but now it looks like it might “just” reach the orbit of Mars, or go just beyond.
Musk originally said the car would survive for up to a billion years in space. That may well be the case, but it might not look too much like a car at all if anyone finds it at a later day.