Break out the champagne, people. Because SpaceX has confirmed that its Tesla Roadster car, launched into space at the start of this year, is now beyond Mars – and is nearly on its way back to Earth orbit.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk sent his Tesla Roadster to space on the inaugural launch of the huge Falcon Heavy rocket on February 6 this year. On board was a dummy named “Starman”, sat rather happily in the driving seat of the vehicle.
The car was placed on an orbit that would take it beyond the orbit of Mars, to a distance of about 1.6 times the Earth-Sun distance, or about 250 million kilometers (155 million miles) from the Sun, known as aphelion. It will take the car about 1.5 years to complete a full orbit of the Sun on each orbit.
And in a short post on Twitter, SpaceX revealed the car was now beyond the orbit of Mars, although it won’t pass close to the planet itself. “Next stop, the restaurant at the end of the universe,” they said, a reference to Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy sequel. (Musk clearly enjoys the series, the dashboard of the Tesla includes a sign with the words "Don't Panic", the very words printed on the cover of the eponymous "guide")
The closest point in the car’s orbit, its perihelion, will take it to about 0.98 times the Earth-Sun distance – or about 150 million kilometers (93 million miles) from the Sun. There is some debate as to how long the car will remain on this orbit, though.
Elon Musk had originally said the car would survive for a billion years in space. But one study found that the car would come within a few hundred thousand kilometers of our planet in 2091, with a 6 percent chance of hitting our planet in 1 million years – although it would just burn up in the atmosphere. It had a 2.5 percent chance of hitting Venus in the same period.
And the car itself is likely to be almost unrecognizable. Radiation is expected to eat away at it, rapidly reducing it to bits. Within a year, most of the organic material on the car – such as its leather seats and rubber tires – are expected to have vanished.
Now the car, or what’s left of it, is about to begin its return to Earth. It will cross the orbit of our planet again in August 2019, before beginning its long trek back to the orbit of Mars. And whatever your thoughts are on the car, that’s still kind of neat.