Explained: How did Elon Musk's SpaceX put a Tesla car in space?

The world was awestruck when the SpaceX CEO Elon Musk dropped a tweet saying, “Apparently, there’s a car in orbit around Earth.”

Published: 08th February 2018 10:30 PM  |   Last Updated: 12th February 2018 12:06 PM   |  A+A-

Elon Musk's tweet was attached with an image of a floating cherry-red Tesla sports car with a space-suited mannequin strapped in the driver’s seat and the Earth hanging behind it. (Twitter | Elon Musk)

Express News Service

CHENNAI: The world was awestruck when the SpaceX CEO Elon Musk dropped a tweet Wednesday saying, “Apparently, there’s a car in orbit around Earth.”

The tweet was attached with an image of a floating cherry-red Tesla sports car with a space-suited mannequin strapped in the driver’s seat and the Earth hanging behind it. 

There’s a tiny chance that the $100,000 Tesla Roadster — with a message “Don’t Panic” damped on the dashboard and a David Bowie soundtrack playing on a loop — might one day bumped into aliens, but if it does the text printed on its circuit board “Made on Earth, by humans” would help them figure it out where it came from.

However, the question remains.

How did SpaceX put a car into the orbit around Earth?

The word for a SpaceX Falcon Heavy, the world’s largest rocket, was first put out almost seven years ago.

In a press release, dated April 5, 2011, it was revealed Falcon Heavy has the ability to carry satellites or interplanetary spacecraft weighing over 53 metric tons or 117,000 pounds to orbit.

A rocket capable of carrying a payload over 20 metric tonnes is classified under the Heavy-Lift Launch Vehicle (HLLV) category. The rocket must carry its package up to at least 160km above the surface and achieve an orbit, requiring speeds above 8,000 metres per second.

By 2018, its ability to carry weight was upgraded to 64 metric tons.

64 metric tons is more than the maximum take-off weight of a fully-loaded Boeing 737-200 with 136 passengers. In other words, Falcon Heavy can deliver the equivalent of an entire commercial airplane full of passengers, crew, luggage and fuel all the way to orbit.

According to SpaceX, Falcon Heavy can lift more than twice the payload of the next closest operational vehicle, the Delta IV Heavy, which is operated by United Launch Alliance, a Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture, at one-third the cost.

The Musk’s space company had set an eye on late 2013-2014 for the rocket’s first launch. However, the launch got delayed on numerous occasions. 

On February 6, the Falcon Heavy rocket lifted off from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, leaving behind orange flames. The entire space industry was watching the launch with anticipation, giving it a countdown, and then as it succeeded Elon Musk’s tweet about the car in the space came out. 

The Falcon Heavy achieved this by using three rockets — three SpaceX’s smaller Falcon 9 rockets essentially strapped together to form the world’s powerful rocket. As it blasted off from the launchpad, two rockets separated after the completion of stage one of the launch. While the final rocket moved forward, with the Tesla Roadster in its upper stage. 

The Roadster spent hours zapped by radioactive rays in the Van Allen belts. After that the upper stage boosters fired one last time, pushing the Tesla out into space. 

The third rocket, however, overshot the trajectory and the car went for an extra long drive than it was originally planned for. 

The car had been intended to take a path around the Sun which would take it out into Mars, and orbit for a billion years. But it “exceeded Mars orbit and kept going to the asteroid belt” between Mars and Jupiter. 

Back on Earth, the two rockets, separated during the first stage from the core booster, safely returned to landing pads at the Kennedy Space Center. While the third, which was supposed to land on a barge in the Atlantic, crashed in the ocean at 300mph, “showering the deck with the shrapnel”.

What’s the sports car's fate? 

Experts fear that even if the car would be able to avoid collisions with solid objects in space, in long run, the space radiations will surely tear it apart. 

“Even if the car avoids any major collisions, over very long time horizons, it's unlikely the vehicle could avoid the kind of collisions with micrometeorites that leave other space junk riddled with craters over time. But assuming those collisions don't completely tear the car apart, the radiation will,” William Carroll, professor of chemistry at Indiana University, told livescience.com. “As the bonds break, the car can literally fall apart.”

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