Is Elon Musk’s orbit-bound Tesla roadster doomed to be space junk?

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Feb 8, 2018

So now that everyone is heaving a collective sigh of relief about Falcon Heavy not exploding during takeoff (though the fear was very real), what is the fate of Elon Musk’s space-bound midnight-cherry Tesla roadster with Starman at the wheel and a copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in the glove compartment?

At least the roadster won’t be another piece of scrap metal that could end up as a potential threat to the ISS or any Earth-orbiting satellites now that it’s left Earth’s orbit. Space.com doesn’t believe it will ever be close enough to crash into anything. It shouldn’t be a problem once it enters deep space either, with a notable lack of cars floating around in the cosmos. With Mars as its destination, the car actually faces more threats to its glossy paint and metal innards than it poses a threat to anything else, except maybe some unknown alien civilization billions of light-years away — if it ever makes it that far.

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How long can Musk expect his spaceborne vehicle to survive? If he was to somehow land it back on Earth soon, it could probably hit the road, but that is highly unlikely given the Tesla and SpaceX CEO’s fascination with the thought of his electric machine traversing the vast expanse of space for possibly billions of years. But first, as he tweeted, Mars.

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When it reaches its destination, the car will eventually find itself in an elliptical orbit around the sun that will take it 250 million miles from Earth at its farthest point, so long as other forces out there don’t annihilate it first. It could get smashed by an asteroid or even totaled on Mars. Then you have to think about the crushing effects of dangerously low pressure and glacial temperatures, as astrophysicist (and SYFY WIRE contributor) Summer Ash observed in an interview with Gizmodo. The pipes would explode, and anything rubber would freeze and crack. All that metal could also be warped by intense and erratic heating and cooling.

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Musk's car could also get more than scratched by micrometeorites, which are constantly denting spacecraft and present a major hazard to astronauts when they set out on spacewalks to repair the damage. Say the car did land on Mars. Because it doesn’t rely on oxygen like a combustion engine, it could hypothetically zip around the dusty red surface if it was powered by solar panels. That still doesn’t factor in the Martian environment. As Scott Bolton, principal investigator of the Juno mission, also told Gizmodo, an electric vehicle is no match for cosmic rays and killer radiation. Its hypersensitive battery and computerized innards would never make it on a planet with no atmosphere. Mars is exposed to a never-ending barrage of high-energy particles from the Van Allen radiation belt, which the car is supposed to “drive” through.

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Musk launched the car not just as a publicity stunt (though the Starman dummy at the wheel obviously is), but as a test for the rocket’s capacity to blast cargo into space, even though it’s arguably more expensive than the immense gallons of water that have been used on previous rockets. Now he knows.

By the way, in case you were wondering, there is a towel included with that copy of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The front panel also says “Don’t Panic!” Musk certainly isn’t.

(via Space.com and Gizmodo)