5 years ago, SpaceX launched its dumbest payload yet – and it’s still in orbit

For the first test flight of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket on February 6, 2018, SpaceX – and Tesla – CEO Elon Musk decided to launch the “the most stupid» imaginable test payload: his own car. The midnight cherry-hued Tesla roadster reached around 26,000 miles per hour, enough speed to escape Earth’s gravity and break any conceivable land speed record.

Reactions from the public, scientists and space law professionals at launch ranged from unmitigated enthusiasm to derision of the silly “stunt” to concern that the car might hit Earth or become dangerous space junk in the future.

Now, five years later, the roadster is still around and doesn’t seem to be on track to cause any short-term problems. Still attached to the upper stage of the Falcon Heavy rocket (the component that navigates space), Musk’s car is around 200,000 miles from Earth in an orbit around the Sun that sees it periodically cross orbits of Earth and Mars.

“It’s actually crossing Mars’ orbit around the Sun right now,” said Harvard astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell. Reverse in an email, “but Mars is completely on the other side of the Sun, and in fact Earth is much closer to Mars than either Tesla!”

But whether the launch of the roadster had an impact on space law and commercial space culture, that may be a different story. After all, how silly do you want space stuff to be when everything involved is moving faster than a bullet through a deadly radiation-filled void?

The SpaceX Roadster recap

SpaceX began development of the heavy rocket that would become the Falcon Heavy in 2011 for a first test flight in 2013, but the program proved more difficult than expected.

A heavy rocket needs to carry at least 44,092 pounds into low Earth orbit, and Musk wanted to push about 140,000 pounds into low Earth orbit, also with reusable booster sections. To achieve this level of performance, SpaceX had to figure out how to connect three of its Falcon 9 reusable booster sections with an additional upper stage.

When the time came for the new rocket’s first uncrewed test flight on February 6, 2018, Musk needed a dummy payload to model how the Falcon Heavy would handle mass delivery in space, and his 2,900-pound car did the trick. But he wouldn’t just launch the car without layering sci-fi and cultural symbolism. A model in a spacesuit nicknamed “Starman” sat in the driver’s seat while David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” played on the radio. The glove compartment contained a copy of Douglas Adams’ cosmic comic novel, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, and the car also carried a briefcase and a sign reading “Don’t Panic”, features of the novel. .

The rocket lifted off at 3:45 p.m. EST from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A, the same launch pad used for NASA’s first-ever Saturn V rocket launch in 1967. The car’s cameras were live streaming the Starman and the roadster. orbiting Earth until the car’s battery died, and the Falcon Heavy upper stage and the roadster both drifted away from Earth in a heliocentric orbit.

Astronomer and science blogger Phil Plait wrote that he wasn’t sure if Musk was joking when the roadster’s launch was announced. Jason Davis, blogger for The Planetary Society, collected a series of reactions to the launch from an artist friend who thought the idea that the roadster was silly art because it “just seems like such a mess”, reactions from people on Twitter who felt the launch was the ultimate “midlife male crisis.”

A model in a spacesuit nicknamed “Starman” sat in the driver’s seat while David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” played on the radio.Document/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Catch the SpaceX Roadster today

As of today, the roadster is approximately 203 million miles from Earth, according to the website www.whereisroadster.com, which tracks the car and provides important and silly statistics on its journey since 2018. The roadster has exceeded its 36,000 km. -mile guaranteed by 69,989 times, for example, having traveled more than 4 billion miles since entering space. If the car battery still had power and the song “Space Oddity” had been playing on the radio for five years, it would have played almost half a million times.

Elon’s Roadster Legacy

An article published in the journal Aerospace in 2018 and nicely titled “The Random Walk of Cars and Their Probabilities of Colliding with Planets” put the chance of the roadster colliding with Earth over the next 15 million years at around 22%. No collision is imminent, although the roadster will pass the Moon’s distance from Earth within the next 100 years.

So, with the possibility of the roadster becoming hazardous space junk, at least on any salient time scale, how does the roadster’s launch look five years later? McDowell, who has not hesitate Correcting Musk on issues like the roadster’s precise orbit and tracking SpaceX satellites in his spare time isn’t particularly bothered.

“Elon Musk deserves attention for what he does to his employees, to the night sky, to democracy or to his new Twitter toy. really beside the point.”

“They needed to do a test launch of the rocket. Bolting the Tesla to the front as a hood ornament demonstrates the lift capability,” McDowell says. “I think it was a good publicity stunt for the automaker and for the rocket builder as a whole.”

Laurą Forczyk, founder of space industry analyst firm Astralytical, thinks the roadster launch event had some benefits for the commercial space industry, or, at least, for SpaceX.

“I loved that it inspired people outside of the space community,” she says. Reverse in an email. “SpaceX became a household name in part because of stunts like that. And it was absolutely something a private company, not a government agency, could do.”

But Christopher Johnson, a space lawyer with the non-profit Secure World Foundation, fears the launch of the roadster is part of a trend of bold moves in space that erode the legal standards established by the Treaty. on Outer Space of 1967, which makes nations responsible for the actions of private companies in space and establishes rules against harmful interference with the space operations of other nations and against contamination of the space environment .

“What I consider to be the 5th anniversary of the Elon roadster stunt is the same reaction I had to the launch of Swarm Technologies without frequency clearance coordination,” Johnson said. Reverse.

Swarm Technologies had been denied a radio frequency license needed to operate its microsatellites by the FCC, which told the company that the satellites, as designed, would be too difficult to track. They still launched four microsatellites from a site in India on January 12, 2018 and were fined $900,000 by the FCC. It was an example, according to Johnson, of a clash between traditional space security culture, international law and “the business philosophy, and in particular the Silicon Valley philosophy, of going fast, breaking things.” , he says, “and that it is better to ask forgiveness than permission.

SpaceX acquired Swarm Technologies in 2021.

Another example of clashing cultures and more serious and potentially damaging space “stunts” involves the April 2019 crash landing of the Israeli lunar lander Beresheet. It was carrying an Arch Mission Foundation payload that included a sample of tardigrades, extremely hardy microscopic organisms sometimes called “water bears,” that could potentially live on the Moon. The foundation had not disclosed to the FAA that the tardigrades were part of the payload before launch, according to Johnson.

Steven Mirmina, a professor at Georgetown University School of Law, wrote a blog post in 2018 about this type of moral hazard as it relates to “stunts” in space. SpaceX arguably didn’t cause space contamination like the Arch Mission Foundation did or flaunt domestic and international law like Swarm Technologies, “But, what about the next billionaire?” Mirmina wrote. “What happens when the next hypothetical cryptocurrency billionaire decides to launch his 23-story ‘Hello Kitty’ rocket into orbit?”

Looking back, Mirmina recounts Reversesome of his fears have already come true.

“The list of stupid things people do in space has only grown over time,” he wrote in an email. “Some that immediately come to mind include disco balls in space, human ashes (and dog ashes) in space; instant “meteor showers” ​​on demand by launching BBs into space. space (what could be bad about that, right)?”

To be fair to SpaceX, the examples cited by Mirmina – the “Humanity Star” launched by the company Rocket Lab in 2018, the companies Elysium Space and Celestis launching human or pet remains into space, and another company, Astro Live Experiences, aiming to create meteor showers – all have roots that go back to before Musk put his car on a rocket.

So maybe the launch of the roadster was an exception that helps highlight a troublesome trend. And that may be a distraction best left in the rearview mirror.

Hanno Rein, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Toronto at Scarborough and lead author of the 2018 paper that calculated the chances of the roadster hitting Earth, thinks five years later no one is care about Musk’s car. If people are going to write about the tech billionaire, Rein says, they should focus on labor practices at his company, how SpaceX Starlink satellites create light pollution and Musk’s recent turn as Twit chief on Twitter.

“Elon Musk deserves attention for what he’s doing to his employees, to the night sky, to democracy, or to his new Twitter toy. But continuing a discussion about whether his car is orbiting Mars or du Soleil really misses the point,” Rein said. Reverse in an email. “You can quote me on that.”

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