SpaceX’s just-launched Tesla Roadster missed Mars

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The test mission of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, the most powerful operational rocket on earth, was supposedly intended to put Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster in an orbit around Mars.

It was a little, let us say, heavy on the accelerator pedal: After a fly-by of Mars, the car will instead head beyond, to the asteroid belt.

The company had never really planned to put the car in an orbit directly around the planet Mars the way the moon orbits earth, despite Musk’s claim that its “destination is Mars orbit.” That would require in-space maneuvering which the Tesla Roadster is not equipped to do.

 

SpaceX's depiction of the Roadster's orbital path.
SpaceX’s depiction of the Roadster’s orbital path over the months ahead. (SpaceX/Elon Musk)

Instead, SpaceX intended to put the roadster into an orbit around the sun that would frequently bring it near to Mars, a preliminary step toward a direct approach. As you can see in the diagram above, the red car will pass by the red planet fairly closely, at least in terms of previous relative distances between cars and astronomical bodies.

But according to Musk—SpaceX hasn’t made an official statement yet—the vehicle “exceeded Mars orbit”; apparently there was more oomph in the second stage of the Falcon Heavy than expected, and now the Roadster will also get a fly-by of the asteroid belt. Astronomers and amateur space object trackers are trying to get more details from the company about the precise position of the unusual spacecraft.

It’s not bad news to learn that the vehicle is more capable than expected, especially after a six hour cruise through the radiation in the Van Allen Belt, which will help convince clients like the US Air Force to use the rocket in the future.

Tesla and “Starman,” its space-suited mannequin pilot, are off to scout the solar system. The question is, how fast will humans follow?

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