Well, it happened. It actually happened. After seven years of waiting, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket lifted off last night from Cape Canaveral in Florida in a stunning launch watched around the world.
On board was Elon Musk’s own Tesla Roadster car, intended to be shot to the orbital plane of Mars because reasons. However, it looks like the car overshot a bit, and it’ll actually head further into the Solar System, to the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
The car was on a six-hour coast through space on the top part of the rocket, the upper stage. SpaceX had then planned to ignite the upper stage, known as the third burn, and send the car into its final orbit. They weren’t sure this would work, however, but it looks like it did.
“Third burn successful. Exceeded Mars orbit and kept going to the Asteroid Belt,” Musk wrote on Twitter.
Amazing images were returned back to Earth of the car heading to orbit, with its “Starman” mannequin inside and a dashboard message of “Don’t Panic!”, a reference to Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. Three cameras on board the car gave us some pretty amazing views of Earth, and some unbeatable advertising for Tesla to boot.
Thanks to that third burn the car is now on an orbit that will take it 2.61 AU from the Sun (1 AU, astronomical unit, is the Earth-Sun distance). That’s almost to the orbit of Ceres at 2.77 AU, a dwarf planet and the largest body in the asteroid belt. Originally, it was intended only to reach the orbital plane of Mars.
Musk had originally said the car would survive in space for up to a billion years. However, it’s not clear whether this new orbital path will change things – there’s a chance Jupiter could cause the orbit to degrade within decades.
“You can tell it's real because it looks so fake,” Musk joked in a post-launch press conference. “Everything looks too crisp. We didn't really test any materials, it has the same seats, it's just a normal car, in space... I like the absurdity of that."
The purpose of this was several-fold. One reason is that it proves Falcon Heavy can be used to send payloads into high orbits – such as geostationary orbits, useful for people like the US military.
It also shows that Falcon Heavy can send things to Mars and beyond. That might be useful to, say, asteroid miners, who are hoping to send spacecraft into the asteroid belt. And to scientists, too, who want to send missions around the Solar System.
Relive the launch here if you missed it.