Elon Musk’s space Tesla just might crash into Earth in the next million years


Remember the Tesla Roadster that Elon Musk launched into space last week?

Yeah, that one.

Well, three scientists just took a close look at the vehicle’s orbit over the next million years, and they found there is a slight chance the car might crash into Earth or Venus.

Don’t panic. The chance is pretty small — somewhere around 6 percent for Earth and 2.5 percent for Venus. And a million years is a very long time — our species has been around for only about a fifth of that span. There’s plenty of room for civilization-ending catastrophes to occur long before the Tesla reenters Earth’s atmosphere.

Besides, the car would likely burn up before reaching the surface.

The results, due to be published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, were posted this week on the e-print site arxiv.org.

The Tesla was launched into space Feb. 6 atop SpaceX’s vaunted Falcon Heavy rocket; its only passenger a spacesuit-wearing mannequin named Starman.

Study authors Hanno Rein, Daniel Tamayo and David Vokrouhlický, all experts in orbital dynamics, emphasize that it’s impossible to map out precisely where Starman will go as his vehicle floats through space. The roadster is drifting on an elliptical orbit around the sun that repeatedly crosses the path of Mars (though the two bodies are not predicted to collide). At its farthest, the car will be 1.67 times Earth’s distance from the sun.

By measuring the car’s flickering brightness, other astronomers determined that it is rotating nearly every five minutes.

The Roadster will experience its next close encounter with Earth sometime around the end of this century — the first of many, Rein and his colleagues say. With each successive flyby past Earth and other bodies in space, its orbit is perturbed and becomes harder to predict.

But by running many simulations of how those encounters might play out, the scientists can get a pretty good estimate of what’s likely to happen. They conclude that the car’s “dynamical lifetime” will probably be a few tens of millions of years.

But aerospace engineer Ben Pearson, creator of the site whereisroadster.com, noted the car had already exceeded its 36,000-mile warranty 511 times as of Friday morning. Hope Starman has good insurance.

Update: Though Rein and his colleagues initially reported that the Roadster will experience a close encounter with Earth in 2091, they are revising their estimates as more up-to-date orbital elements have become available so that date is no longer certain.

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