Some rich men buy a red sports car when they hit middle age. Elon Musk wants to ship his to Mars.
In January, Musk’s SpaceX rocket corporation plans to launch its first Falcon Heavy rocket, a long-awaited jumbo ride into orbit. The space and electric car mogul tweeted on Friday that the rocket would be carrying “my midnight cherry Tesla Roadster,” aimed at the orbit of Mars.
Playing David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” as it heads into space, the $200,000 electric sports car will travel on an egg-shaped orbit for eternity, looping from the orbit of Earth to the orbit of Mars, Musk said. And if the Falcon Heavy doesn’t explode on its first launch attempt — something he has warned might happen — the 2,700-pound Tesla would easily fit within the capabilities of a rocket designed to loft 37,000 pounds of cargo to the red planet.
Musk hasn’t said why he wants to send his car, but space experts suggested it fits SpaceX’s pattern of having some fun with the staid space business — like naming its floating landing platforms “Just Read The Instructions,” and “Of Course I Still Love You,” in homage to a science fiction series.
“Just like the first flight of a new jumbo jet doesn’t go with a full complement of passengers, it makes sense to do a launch where you can learn a lot, but the payload isn't mission-critical,” University of Colorado space policy expert Phil Larson, who has worked at both SpaceX and the Office of Science and Technology Policy, told BuzzFeed News.
A half-dozen Mars scientists contacted by BuzzFeed News declined to comment on the proposal, perhaps wary of antagonizing the rocket company they hope will someday ship their scientific probes into space.
Musk had nixed a proposed landing of a SpaceX Dragon space capsule on Mars earlier this year, citing the costs of NASA certifying the landing. The proposed roadster trip falls more in line with other whimsical first launch payloads, such as the return cargo of the first Dragon flight in 2010 including a wheel of Gruyère cheese.
Larson defended sending a car to Mars orbit instead of a scientific probe, saying by email: “Anytime you have a new rocket launching, you’re going to learn a lot. The capabilities gained by a heavy lift vehicle like this one will help open the solar system to even more exploration.”
But if SpaceX is open for other ideas, a crash effort by scientists could send a 230-pound probe launched from the Falcon Heavy to fly by Oumuamua, a newly discovered and first spotted asteroid that comes from another star, Andreas Hein of the Initiative for Interstellar Studies told BuzzFeed News. The probe could take pictures better than ones from Earth telescopes, similar to the recent NASA flyby mission of Pluto.
The curiously long interstellar visitor, the most elongated asteroid ever seen to the fascination of space scientists, is headed out of our solar system at 58,000 miles per hour and it would require that the probe would slingshot past Jupiter and dip close to the sun to pick up speed to catch up to Oumuamua.
“As the Falcon Heavy launch is very soon, I do not think that it is possible to build a spacecraft that quickly,” Hein said. “But maybe one of the future launches could be used.”