Last week, entrepreneur Elon Musk's SpaceX successfully launched their Falcon Heavy rocket, the most powerful functional rocket in the world today. But that wasn't the only thing hurtling into space. Atop the rocket was a bright red Tesla Roadster that zipped into an elliptical orbit around the sun. Now, we are finally getting some clues to its eventual fate.
As Daniel Clery reports for Science, researchers specializing in orbital dynamics took a swing at calculating the car’s possible journey over the next few million years. Their conclusion: the car could possibly crash back into Earth—but it's only a 6 percent chance in more than a million years.
Although it’s impossible to determine exactly where the Roadster is headed, it is possible to take an educated guess. As Cleary reports, Hanno Rein of the University of Toronto in Canada and his colleagues do research that involves the modeling of planetary motion, which would provide them with just the right tools to study the space car. They tweaked their models and ran the test to predict the car’s journey. Their results appear in a study available on the preprint server arXiv.
Currently, the Roadster is heading out toward Mars. As CBS News’ William Hardwood writes, it will pass within 69 million miles of the Red Planet on June 10, reaching its farthest distance from the sun (154.7 million miles) on November 9.
But it won't stop there. As Clery explains, the sun’s gravity will bring the vehicle back towards the inner solar system. It will continue to orbit through our planetary family, repeatedly crossing the orbits of Mars, Earth and Venus. As Rein tells Clery, inner solar system asteroids make a similar journey to the Roadster's predicted path.
The Roadster won't have a chance to tango with Earth until its first close encounter in 2091. But don't worry: if it does come crashing into Earth, most of the vehicle will likely burn up before it can arrive on the surface. “There is no risk to health and safety whatsoever,” Rein tells Clery. Due to it's swinging orbit, the car will approach Earth many times in the next million years.
The odds of close encounter do rise after that first million years has passed, Cleary reports. After 3 million years, the Roadster has a 10 percent chance of crashing down. And in tens of millions of years, the odds rise to roughly 50 percent. It also has a 2.5 percent chance of crashing into Venus.
Speculation around the car's whereabouts has also prompted engineer Ben Pearson to start tracking the car with website Where is Roadster?. According to CNET, the site shows the Roadster's position in space compared with Earth, Venus, Mercury, Mars and Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt, by using data from NASA.
No one knows exactly how the Roadster’s journey will end, but it will be a long time from now. Rein tells CBS News the researchers aren’t expecting this finding to bring about new insight into astrophysics. But rather, he says, “[t]his was a fun thing to do.”