Tesla shot into space will likely collide with Earth or Venus—in millions of years: researchers

February 16, 2018, University of Toronto
Researchers at the Centre for Planetary Sciences have found that the Tesla Roadster recently sent into space as part of SpaceX's test flight will eventually collide with Earth or Venus. Credit: SpaceX

The Tesla Roadster that was recently shot into space as part of SpaceX's rocket test flight will likely collide with Earth or Venus eventually, according to new University of Toronto research.

"It will likely end up colliding with Earth or Venus, but there's no need to panic since the probability of that happening even within the next million years is very small," says the research's author Hanno Rein, an assistant professor of physics at U of T Scarborough and director of the Centre for Planetary Sciences.

The car was sent into space as part of the payload for SpaceX's Falcon Heavy on Feb. 6. While flights usually have a dummy payload, SpaceX founder Elon Musk sent up his personal Tesla Roadster instead.

Though it's mostly a publicity stunt – the car doesn't have any scientific instruments on board – it's now classified as a near- object, meaning it is catalogued and being tracked by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory along with other objects that will travel relatively close to Earth.

What motivated Rein and his team was the question of what will be the car's long-term fate. After running a series of simulations using sophisticated software that can track the motion of objects in space, they determined the probability of it colliding with Earth and Venus over the next one million years to be six per cent and 2.5 per cent, respectively.

They also determined that the first close encounter the Tesla will have with us will be in 2091, when it will pass within a few hundred thousand kilometres of Earth.

Assistant Professor Hanno Rein (left) and postdoctoral fellow Dan Tamayo from the Centre for Planetary Sciences wanted to see what the long-term fate of the Tesla Roadster would be after it was launched into space. Credit: Ken Jones

The car is currently on a Mars and Earth crossing orbit, meaning it will travel on an elliptical path that repeatedly carries it beyond Mars and then back to Earth's orbital distance from the sun. How the car's orbit evolves over time will depend a lot on its encounters with Earth, especially how close it will get to Earth since any small change in its trajectory could have a large effect on its orbit.

While the path of the Tesla can be accurately predicted in terms of years, after hundreds of years and many close encounters with Earth it becomes impossible to predict the object's precise orbit. By studying a large number of orbital simulations, however, the researchers were able to arrive at a statistical distribution of possible outcomes.

"Each time it passes Earth, the car will get a gravitational kick," says Dan Tamayo, a postdoctoral fellow at U of T Scarborough who is a co-author on the paper that has yet to be published.

"Depending on the details of these encounters, the Tesla can be kicked onto a wider or smaller orbit, so it's random. Over time the will undergo what's called a random walk, similar to the fluctuations we see in the stock market, that will allow it to wander the inner solar system."

While they only ran simulations for the first three million years of its space journey, Rein says the most likely outcome for the Tesla is for it to crash into Earth or Venus in the next 10 million years or so.

"Although we are not able to tell on which planet the car will ultimately end up, we're comfortable saying it won't survive in space for more than a few tens of millions of years," he says.

While the car's likely final destination is Earth, they note there's nothing to fear since much or all of it will likely burn up in the atmosphere.

A preprint of the paper is available online.

Explore further: SpaceX beams cool video of Tesla in space

More information: The random walk of cars and their collision probabilities with planets, arXiv:1802.04718 [astro-ph.EP] arxiv.org/abs/1802.04718

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Steelwolf
5 / 5 (6) Feb 16, 2018
So, we have a Drunkard's Walk going on with the positionals? Sounds like ol Spaceman decided he did not like the rigid format to his trip and decided to randomize it some so he can see more of the system up close.

One thing for certain: That car has gotten better milage per charge than most E-cars will ever see, already.
Captain Stumpy
4 / 5 (4) Feb 16, 2018
One thing for certain: That car has gotten better milage per charge than most E-cars will ever see, already.
ok, now *that* was funny!

LMFAO
Mark Thomas
5 / 5 (5) Feb 16, 2018
Fortunately, Tesla has an "Infinite Mile Warranty" on their Roadsters. :-)

On a different note, I feel confident Elon's Roadster will be picked up in a century or two.
carbon_unit
5 / 5 (1) Feb 16, 2018
Well, it took on a pretty big "charge" if you consider the energy necessary to fuel the FH. So in the short term, maybe not so good mileage. After hundreds of years or so, it will be a different story.
rockart
5 / 5 (3) Feb 16, 2018
Huh! So, in a million years an emerging race of intelligent fungi will end up worshipping whatever survives re-entry. The gods MUST be crazy.
Bongstar420
5 / 5 (1) Feb 16, 2018
Jesus. I'm sure that car serves more value needlessly floating space rather than in some average person's garage.
JRi
5 / 5 (2) Feb 17, 2018
I wonder what has happened to tires and plastic parts of the car in sunshine. I bet they can reach pretty high temperatures. Any realtime video about the car?
Steelwolf
5 / 5 (2) Feb 17, 2018
I can imagine the speeding tickets Mr. Musk will find stuck under the windshield wiper when he goes to retrieve it at Mars later this century.
Whatmaze
5 / 5 (1) Feb 17, 2018
Does this mean a 91.5% chance of a miss in the next million years? My money is on the miss.
rrwillsj
3.7 / 5 (3) Feb 17, 2018
Clickbait Headline:
Tesla Roadster collides with Nomad!

I would not care to be the Traffic Incident officer who has to fill out THAT accident report!
Captain Stumpy
3 / 5 (2) Feb 17, 2018
Clickbait Headline:
Tesla Roadster collides with Nomad!

I would not care to be the Traffic Incident officer who has to fill out THAT accident report!
might actually make for a humourous sci-fi book (or episode on TV)

Red Dwarf meets Tesla Roadster ... LMFAO

cantdrive85
3 / 5 (2) Feb 18, 2018
Tesla shot into space will likely collide with Earth or Venus—in millions of years: researchers

Maybe they should have installed the newest version of Autopilot.
adam_russell_9615
5 / 5 (1) Feb 18, 2018
I would have guessed an "unplanned deceleration" followed by orbital decay into the sun.
humy
5 / 5 (1) Feb 18, 2018
If some global disaster happened that wipes out the records of this car being ever lunched into space and then, thousands of years later after humanity recovers and explores space again, they are eventually going to find that car orbiting in space with absolutely no reasonable explanation of how it got there. It would be pretty absurd for it being, at huge expense, deliberately put there by rocket!
It would be a total mystery!
What reasonable theory can you come up with to explain it?
humy
5 / 5 (1) Feb 18, 2018
If some global disaster happened that wipes out the records of this car being ever lunched into space and then, thousands of years later after humanity recovers and explores space again, they are eventually going to find that car orbiting in space with absolutely no reasonable explanation of how it got there. It would be pretty absurd for it being, at huge expense, deliberately put there by rocket!
It would be a total mystery!
What reasonable theory can you come up with to explain it?

It would be like us finding some surfboards on the Moon.
carbon_unit
not rated yet Feb 18, 2018
Tesla Roadster collides with Nomad!
And after the merger, its new mission would be to sterilize the fossil fuel industry.
I can imagine the speeding tickets Mr. Musk will find stuck under the windshield wiper when he goes to retrieve it at Mars later this century.
Unless otherwise posted, the speed limit is 299,792 kps, so no speeding tickets. ;)

This simulation suggests that the car might survive re-entry (although there might be alien involvenment) https://youtu.be/...k?t=2m5s
Thorium Boy
2 / 5 (4) Feb 19, 2018
Too bad Musk wasn't in it.
mark_penrice
1 / 5 (2) Feb 19, 2018
I would expect that it would hit Earth, and sooner rather than later... The telemetry for the Falcon Heavy launch showed that the payload stage's terminal velocity was just a smidge over 26,000km/h, close enough that it seemed like an engineered cutoff rather than it running out of fuel, and that's just enough (7.22km/h) for a low to medium earth orbit (maybe 1500km, and I don't think it even reached 1000km altitude, so that suggests an elliptical path that might average around 1000). At that distance there's still plenty of atmosphere left to gradually slow it down and cause orbital decay, so unless it has a regular thruster burn to maintain height it'll end up falling back into the lower atmosphere and, as there isn't any obvious heat shielding, almost certainly burn up.

The idea that it'd even reach the Moon, let alone Mars or Venus from that fairly direct flight to low, slow orbit seems rather silly.
mark_penrice
1 / 5 (2) Feb 19, 2018
Funny, the example on the wikipedia page you posted (literally headed as Example, btw) seems more to agree with my view on it - at a 300km geostationary transfer orbit (itself not geostat, or likely to do anything other than slowly decay without extra speed added), you need to be travelling at 7.73km/s (27,828km/h, faster than the Tesla was shown as having reached) to maintain your altitude. To move out to a geostationary orbit - still very much Earth-centric, and well within that of the moon - using a Hohmann transfer ellipse, you first have to accelerate to more than 10km/s (over 36,000km/h), which flings you outwards, and would leave you in an elliptical orbit that swings between 35,000km and 300km if you do nothing else. Then when you reach the outer point of the ellipse, you accelerate yourself again, this time from 1.61km/s to 3.07km/s.

It's more efficient than thrusting the whole way, it seems, but it's not magic. You can't launch into space at 7.22km/s and end up at Mars.
mark_penrice
1 / 5 (2) Feb 19, 2018
Also, is the suggestion really that Musk and the SpaceX team had no planned/intended trajectory for the Roadster and hadn't carefully calculated its path before even setting up for launch? They just plunked it on the top of the rocket, lit the fuse and hoped for the best? I know they can seem reckless at times, but that sort of thing would, at least I'd hope, get you in all kinds of hot water because of the risk of accidentally taking out other satellites.

And Elon's tweet seems to suggest that the car is already at the asteroid belt, and we simply don't have the technology to move things anywhere near that fast in such a short time. One suspects he was joking, and as such it can't be used as evidence of anything other than a sense of humour.
mark_penrice
1 / 5 (2) Feb 19, 2018
However if what you meant to post was additional footage or telemetry that we didn't initially see, showing that the car and its rocket motor equipped module made further burns up to a higher speed, then I'd be entirely fine with that. I'm only working on what I've personally seen via the youtube feeds and so-on. Maybe it was further accelerated afterwards. This is your chance to properly fill me in on something I missed, so I'm not working from a false basis in terms of actual numbers.

But if you're arguing that an object moving around the Earth at 26,000km/h, a few hundred klicks up, has enough kinetic+potential energy to even reach the moon, let alone far beyond, then I'm just going to laugh. Escape velocity is escape velocity, it's how fast you need to *already* be going (without further thrust) in order to leave Earth's gravity well for good and independently join (or exit) the rest of the solar system. And that's up past 11km/s.

Gravity isn't just a theory, it's the law.
rrwillsj
1 / 5 (2) Feb 19, 2018
An evil speculation here. If anyone aboard the ISS or Chinese space station could catch it floating by? Imagine the possibilities for a date?

"Gosh dear, isn't the Moon bright tonight? And all those stars!"

I wonder how soon the first faked photos will appear on the internet? Just to twit all the Roswell dolts.

"Oh look! A smudge lurking in the shadow behind the commode. It must be an alien. Cause, why not?"
neiorah
5 / 5 (2) Feb 19, 2018
LOVE IT !!!! Heavy metal anyone? Instead of a vintage Corvette it is a Tesla. LMAO it is soooo great that they sent the car up with a dummy in it. At least we can still have some fun in a world that is so messed up.
milnik
not rated yet Feb 23, 2018
America is not able to send equipment without Russian missiles to the space station, and this car can easily set up by the universe at will !. Is there any of these experts who can calculate the force of thrust for that car and that it moves along a certain elliptical path through the space. Today's science does not explain why our moon has its own side, always facing the Earth, and everything has been resolved that this car can go into space anytime, anywhere.
Very strong science !!
carbon_unit
not rated yet Feb 26, 2018
LOVE IT !!!! Heavy metal anyone? Instead of a vintage Corvette it is a Tesla. ...
The Youtube link in my previous post is indeed the opening sequence to Heavy Metal.

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