A red car for a Red Planet. That's what Elon Musk was hoping for when he launched his own Tesla Roadster on SpaceX's first Falcon Heavy rocket Tuesday (Feb. 6), headed for an orbit that might have extended out to the orbit of Mars. But his car, it turns out, is taking a detour through the asteroid belt.
Musk's Roadster and its mannequin "driver," dubbed "Starman," launched into space from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, as a "mass simulator" aboard SpaceX's Falcon Heavy test flight. The launch was a huge success, Musk said, leaving only the fate of SpaceX's Starman and the Roadster up in the air.
Would the car and mannequin, attached to the Falcon Heavy's second stage, survive an experimental 6-hour coast phase that would send it through Earth's radiation-flooded Van Allen belts? And would an engine burn by the second stage after that coast go as planned, sending the Roadster out to the orbit of Mars? [In Photos: SpaceX's 1st Falcon Heavy Rocket Test Launch Success!]
In a late-night update, Musk announced that the Falcon Heavy stage did survive its daring slog through the Van Allen belts.
"Third burn successful," Musk wrote on Twitter. "Exceeded Mars orbit and kept going to the Asteroid Belt."
Starman and the Roadster are now flying in a long, elliptical orbit around the sun. At its farthest point, that orbit extends nearly 243 million miles (390 million kilometers). That's 2.61 times the average distance between Earth and the sun, which is, on average, about 93 million miles (150 million km).
For reference, Mars orbits the sun at an average distance of 142 million miles (228 million km). At their closest point to the sun, Starman and the Roadster will fly just inside Earth's orbit, according to the diagram.
So, yeah. That's one epic trip.
At a news conference after Tuesday's Falcon Heavy launch, Musk said the Roadster will orbit the sun for millions, perhaps even billions, of years.
He wondered what aliens might think if they ever came across the Roadster drifting through space. After all, SpaceX packed other weird items in the car, among them a small toy Hot Wheels Roadster (complete with a miniature Starman) on the dashboard.
"Maybe [it will be] discovered by an alien race, thinking, 'What were these guys doing? Did they worship this car? Why do they have a little car in the car?'" Musk said. "That will really confuse them."