“Ground control to Major Tom…“
Yesterday Elon Musk successfully launched his SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket and landed two of the reusable rockets perfectly. That itself was pretty inspiring and amazing, right? But if you caught this bit of news you might have thought, WTF is that? Musk also launched his personal Tesla Roadster. His tweet explained,
“Payload will be my midnight cherry Tesla Roadster playing Space Oddity. Destination is Mars orbit. Will be in deep space for a billion years or so if it doesn’t blow up on ascent.
I love the thought of a car drifting apparently endlessly through space and perhaps being discovered by an alien race millions of years in the future.”
A few days later, he revealed that it would have a copy of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in the glove box, along with a towel and a sign reading, “Don’t panic.”
“Test flights of new rockets usually contain mass simulators in the form of concrete or steel blocks. That seemed extremely boring. Of course, anything boring is terrible, especially companies, so we decided to send something unusual, something that made us feel. The payload will be an original Tesla Roadster, playing Space Oddity, on a billion year elliptic Mars orbit.”
How did he end up deciding to launch his car into space, though? SpaceX employees with knowledge of the scheme spoke to Motor Trend on the condition of anonymity to share the story behind the “Red Car for the Red Planet.”
“Late in the summer of 2017, the delayed launch of the first Falcon Heavy rocket was finally beginning to take shape, and it was time to talk payload. As Musk would later tweet, payloads on test flights are generally cheap, heavy objects to simulate a real payload without the risk of losing a billion-dollar satellite if the test went wrong, which isn’t uncommon…
The payload team assumed, incorrectly, that Musk would be fine with a typical test payload on such an important launch. That’s not Musk’s style. He wanted a fun payload and sent the team away to come up with one. They came back with their old list of goofy ideas, and Musk loved the car idea. He immediately offered up his personal 2010 Tesla Roadster Sport.
It was quickly determined the car needed to be stripped. After all, the only launch it was designed for was a stoplight drag. All the glass had to go, as did the battery. With the battery out, there was no need to keep the drivetrain in, either, so that went, too. Musk himself has been very open about prototype rockets tending to explode, and no one wants to scatter 1,000 pounds of lithium across the upper atmosphere. Other than the obvious weak points like glass, SpaceX engineers were impressed with the rigidity and durability of the Lotus-based Roadster in their tests.
Any rocket launched into space from a U.S. territory must be licensed by the FAA, and part of that license includes approving the cargo it will carry. Generally, the rules require the regulator to determine if the cargo is a threat to human health and safety to the safety of U.S. property. It also must be in compliance with international space treaties. Stripped of its potentially hazardous components, the Roadster should pass muster, but according to reports, FAA wasn’t happy about the surprise.
In the broader regulatory scope, the international Outer Space Treaty only covers planetary protection, designed to prevent other planets from being contaminated with any sort of life from Earth (such as hardy microbes that could hitch a ride on a spacecraft). Were the Roadster to land on Mars or if it were put in orbit of the planet where it could eventually be pulled down by gravity, SpaceX would be in violation. To get around that, the Roadster will be sent out to the general distance from the sun where Mars orbits and left to drift, never coming close enough to the planet to risk crash landing. Otherwise, legal experts mostly agree there isn’t really any law preventing SpaceX from sending the Roadster into space.”
But the Roadster seems to be going going farther out into the Solar System than originally planned. The rocket carrying the car seems to have overshot that trajectory and has put the Tesla in an orbit that extends out into the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. (Below is a 4+ Hour live-stream that has now ended.)
“Check ignition and may God’s love be with you…“
Falcon Heavy launches to Mars orbit tomorrow. If it doesn’t explode into tiny pieces, it will carry Starman in Roadster over 400 million km from Earth at 11 km/sec on a billion year journey through deep space. Should it work, Falcon Heavy will be the most powerful rocket in the world by a factor of two and the highest payload launch vehicle to reach orbit after the Saturn V moon rocket. Could do crewed missions to the moon and Mars with orbital refilling, but better to leave that to the BFR program.
Third burn successful. Exceeded Mars orbit and kept going to the Asteroid Belt. pic.twitter.com/bKhRN73WHF
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 7, 2018
(via Motor Trend)