Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster sports car was shot into space on SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket February 6. Now, some researchers think it might be on a collision course with Earth.
Scientists from the University of Toronto have calculated the floating space car could hit either Earth or Venus. Although not for quite some time.
"It will likely end up colliding with Earth or Venus, but there's no need to panic since the probability of that happening even within the next million years is very small," said research author Hanno Rein, a physicist at U of T Scarborough in a statement. The results were shared on the academic preprint server arXiv.
Unpredictable beyond a few hundred years
SpaceX initially planned for the car to reach Mars’s orbit, but soon after launch realized they had overshot the target and sent the car even further into space. The car is destined to drive an elliptical path beyond Mars and back toward Earth’s orbit—again and again.
Over time, that orbit will change.
"Each time it passes Earth, the car will get a gravitational kick," said U of T Scarborough postdoctoral fellow Dan Tamayo, who is a co-author on the paper. "Depending on the details of these encounters, the Tesla can be kicked onto a wider or smaller orbit, so it's random. Over time the orbit will undergo what's called a random walk, similar to the fluctuations we see in the stock market, that will allow it to wander the inner solar system."
Because it isn't possible to predict the car’s journey accurately once hundreds of years have passed, researchers instead ran 3 million years' worth of simulations to determine statistically likely outcomes.
In the first million, they predicted only a 6 percent chance of collision with Earth and a 2.5 percent chance of collision with Venus. However the scientists think the Roadster will make its way to either planet at some point in the next 10 million years or so.
Rein said: "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."
If the Roadster ends up heading back toward Earth, it will almost certainly be burned up in the atmosphere. And even if it somehow survived the trip, it is impossible to predict what would greet the car’s pilot, a space-suited mannequin named “Starman.”
Where is the Roadster now?
The car is classed by NASA as a “Near Earth Object,” and is being tracked by the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. That means professional astronomers and amateurs alike can keep up with the car using JPL’s HORIZONS system (type “-143205” into the “target body” section) as it sinks deeper into space.
If you don't have time for that, no need to worry. Self-confessed “space nerd” Ben Pearson has turned all of those numbers into easy-to-follow charts on his website WhereIsRoadster.
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