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CAPE CANAVERAL: Elon Musk’s car is headed off into very deep space after being strapped to the top of a rocket. The Tesla Roadster was originally intended to head into orbit around Mars as part of the Falcon Heavy test, which would try out the most powerful rocket on Earth. To fill up the space that would normally be occupied by scientific equipment or another payload, Mr Musk put a car into the rocket — and blasted it out into space, filming it as it went.
View from SpaceX Launch Control. Apparently, there is a car in orbit around Earth. https://t.co/QljN2VnL1O
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk)
In the original plan, the car and the dummy that is sat in it would have gone into orbit between Mars and Earth, slowly passing around the solar system. But the payload has overshot that route and is now headed even deeper into space. It’s now on its way to the asteroid belt that rings the very edges of our neighbourhood, Mr Musk said. One of the bursts of fuel that get burnt off to give it momentum had actually pushed it too hard, and it was heading away from its planned route, he tweeted. That final burn appears to have happened overnight, above California.
While the change of route could look embarrassing for SpaceX, it might also encourage more private companies to enlist its services. The long route that it is planning shows just how powerful the Falcon Heavy rocket is, and the ability to get out into the asteroid belt could be useful. It could even be incredibly valuable for the various private companies who hope to set up asteroid mining companies. Many of the objects deep out towards the edges of our solar system are thought to contain expensive and rare materials — but as yet there’s no way to get hold of them and bring them back down to Earth.
Indeed, some have suggested that the dwarf planet Ceres could serve as a base or hub for those missions, with mining spacecraft landing there first before pursuing the rich asteroids. The car is headed very close to Ceres, according to the orbit route shared by Mr Musk. All of that work is many, many years in the future. But it is exactly that kind of private space travel and exploration, by commercial companies, that SpaceX wants to make money launching rockets for.
Tesla hasn’t revealed much about the car’s trajectory. Data could allow astronomers to calculate where it might end up as it travels through the solar system, but for now it’s not clear where the pull of the various planets in our neighbourhood will take it. It’s unlikely that the car will ever collide with anything major, since it’s so small. But once it arrives in the asteroid belt, it might be joined by more things of its own side, and it’s possible it will be smashed up then.
If that doesn’t happen, it’s not clear how long the car will last for, or how it will be destroyed. Mr Musk said that he expected the orbit could last a billion years — but it depends entirely on what sort of orbit it ends up in, and how it deals with the harsh environment of space.