Elon Musk's Tesla Roadster Headed for Earth or Venus Crash (In a Few Million Years)

Elon Musk's space car is headed for a hell of a crash a few million years down the road, a new study suggests.

The Tesla Roadster and its driver, a mannequin named Starman, launched on the maiden flight of SpaceX's huge Falcon Heavy rocket last week. The car is currently looping around the sun on an elliptical orbit that takes it a little beyond Mars at its farthest point, and back to Earth's orbital distance at its closest.

A team of researchers wanted to know the Roadster's ultimate fate, so they performed a series of computer simulations tracking the car's path through the solar system over the next 3 million years. [In Photos: SpaceX's 1st Falcon Heavy Rocket Test Launch Success!]

Starman and his Tesla leave Earth behind shortly after launching atop SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket on Feb. 6, 2018. (Image credit: SpaceX)

This modeling work gives the Roadster a 6 percent chance of crashing into Earth in the next 1 million years and a 2.5 percent chance of hitting Venus during that same stretch. The car will probably slam into one of those two worlds at some point in the not-too-distant future (well, cosmologically speaking, anyway), the researchers said. 

"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," lead author Hanno Rein, director of the University of Toronto Scarborough's Centre for Planetary Science, said in a statement.

When that happens, most or all of the Tesla will burn up in the atmosphere, team members said.

As all the uncertainty suggests, the orbits of small objects like electric cars are tough to project so far into the future. The Tesla will have many gravitational encounters with Earth over the eons, for example, and it's unclear just how these will shape its trek through space.

"Depending on the details of these encounters, the Tesla can be kicked onto a wider or smaller orbit, so it’s random," study co-author Dan Tamayo, also of the University of Toronto Scarborough, said in the same statement. "Over time, the orbit 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."

The researchers also determined that the space Tesla will make a relatively close pass by Earth in 2091, coming within a few hundred thousand kilometers of the planet.

The new study will be submitted to the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, the researchers said. You can read it for free at the online preprint site arXiv.org

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Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with Space.com and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.