Elon Musk's Tesla Roadster

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Elon Musk's Tesla Roadster
Photograph of the black emptiness of space, with planet Earth partly in shadow in the background.  In the foreground is an open-top red convertible sports car, viewed from the front over the bonnet, with a driver wearing a human-shaped white-and-black spacesuit in the driving seat.
The Roadster in a parking orbit above Earth, prior to departing Earth's gravity well on a trans-Mars injection heliocentric orbit
Names SpaceX Roadster[1]
Mission type Test flight
Operator SpaceX
COSPAR ID 2018-017A
SATCAT no. 43205
Spacecraft properties
Spacecraft type 2008 Tesla Roadster used as a mass simulator, attached to the upper stage of a Falcon Heavy rocket
Manufacturer Tesla and SpaceX
Launch mass
  • ~1,300 kg (2,900 lb);
  • ~6,000 kg (13,000 lb) including rocket upper stage[2]
Start of mission
Launch date 20:45:00, February 6, 2018 (2018-02-06T20:45:00)
Rocket Falcon Heavy FH-001
Launch site Kennedy LC-39A
Orbital parameters
Reference system Heliocentric
Eccentricity 0.25575[3]
Perihelion 0.98614 au[3]
Aphelion 1.6639 au[3]
Inclination 1.078°[3]
Period 1.525 year[3]
Epoch 1 May 2018

Elon Musk's Tesla Roadster is an electric sports car that served as the dummy payload for the Falcon Heavy test flight on February 6, 2018. A mannequin named Starman sits at the driving seat wearing a spacesuit. The 2008 Tesla Roadster car and Falcon Heavy rocket are both products of Elon Musk's companies, Tesla, Inc. and SpaceX respectively. This electric car was previously used by Musk for commuting, and it became the only consumer car ever sent into space.

Together with the rocket's second stage to which the car is attached, it is now an artificial object in heliocentric orbit. The boosts of the second stage gave the combination sufficient velocity to escape Earth's gravity and enter an elliptical heliocentric orbit that crosses the orbit of Mars. The orbit reaches a maximum distance from the Sun at aphelion of 1.66 astronomical units (au).[3][4] During the early portion of its voyage, the combination sent live video back to Earth for slightly over four hours.[5]

The choice of this car as a dummy payload was variously interpreted as a marketing move for Tesla, an art object, or as contributing to space debris.


Photograph of a parking space with the words "SpaceX" and "reserved".  The parking space contains a red convertible sports car with Californian license plate TSLA 10. On the rear of the vehicle are written the words "Tesla Roadster Sport".
Elon Musk's Tesla Roadster in a parking space outside SpaceX in 2010

In March 2017 Musk stated that the launch of the new Falcon Heavy vehicle was risky, so it would carry the "silliest thing we can imagine".[6] On December 1, 2017 he said that the payload would be his personal Roadster,[7][8] subsequently verifying that he was not joking.[9] On December 22, Musk published pictures of the car taken before payload encapsulation.

Traditionally, concrete or steel blocks are used as ballast in risky test flights. SpaceX wanted to demonstrate that their new rocket could carry a payload as far as the orbit of Mars. They reportedly had offered NASA to carry a scientific payload, but these plans did not come to fruition.[10]

This Roadster became the first consumer car sent into space.[11] Three manned rovers were sent to space on the Apollo 15, 16, and 17 missions in the 1970s and these vehicles were left on the Moon.[12]

Roadster payload[edit]

The first-generation Tesla Roadster is an all-electric sports car. The red Roadster launched into space is one of Elon Musk's privately owned vehicles.[13][14] Musk said in a 2012 interview that the Roadster was "the one I drive to work".[15]

Large circular disc of a fully-illuminated planet Earth floating in the blackness of space. In front of Earth is a red convertible sports-car seen from the side. A humanoid figure wearing a white-and-black spacesuit is seated in the driving seat with the right-arm holding the steering wheel, and the left-arm resting on the top of the car door.
"Starman" seated in the Roadster

A number of whimsical objects were included in the Roadster. Positioned in the driver's seat is "Starman", a full-scale human mannequin named after the David Bowie song "Starman"[16] and clad in SpaceX's pressure spacesuit.[17] The mannequin has its right hand on the steering wheel and left elbow resting on the open window sill. The car's sound system was said to be looping the Bowie song "Space Oddity"[18] even though no human can hear sound in space,[19][20] it was intended as a symbolic gesture.[21]

There is a copy of Douglas Adams' 1979 novel The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in the glovebox, along with a towel (a reference to the book) and a sign on the dashboard that reads "Don't Panic!" (another reference to the book).[22][23][24] A Hot Wheels miniature Roadster with a miniature Starman is mounted on the dashboard. A plaque bearing the names of the employees who worked on the project is underneath the car, and a message on the vehicle's circuit board reads "Made on Earth by humans".[25] A copy of Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy on a 5D optical data storage disc was included – the disk holds 360 terabytes but the books only comprised 3 megabytes. It was created by the Arch Mission Foundation and added at the last minute after Musk was informed that the disk, previously created as a proof of concept and never intended to be launched into space, was available – Musk was a fan of the trilogy.[26][27][28]


A license for the launch was issued by the US Office of Commercial Space Transportation on February 2, 2018.[29] The car was installed in the Falcon Heavy rocket at an inclined position above the payload adapter in order to account for the mass distribution.[30] The rocket lifted off from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center[29] at 15:45 EST (20:45 UTC) on February 6, 2018,[31] and was initially placed in Earth parking orbit while remaining attached to the Falcon Heavy second stage.[4] After a longer-than-usual six-hour coast phase through the Van Allen radiation belts, thereby demonstrating a new capability requested by the U.S. Air Force for direct geostationary orbit (GEO) insertion of heavy intelligence satellites, the second stage reignited for the Earth-escape trajectory.[32][33][34]

Photograph of the front of a red convertible sports car floating in space. There is a humanoid figure in the driving seat. In the background, partially illuminated in a crescent shape, is planet Earth.
Final image from the Roadster

Like all its previous launches, SpaceX live streamed a video feed. It started at the rocket's launch, and once in space showed the Roadster at different angles from cameras mounted inside and outside the car.

SpaceX did not say how long the feed was to run, and Musk had said the car's battery would last for about twelve hours, but the live stream actually ran for just over four hours, thus ending before the final boost out of Earth orbit.[5][35][36][37] The images were released by SpaceX into the public domain on its Flickr account.[38][39]

Following the launch, the car and rocket booster were given the Satellite Catalog Number 43205, named "TESLA ROADSTER/FALCON 9H", along with the COSPAR designation 2018-017A.[40] The JPL Horizons system publishes solutions for the trajectory as target body "-143205".[1] The Roadster remains attached to the Falcon second stage.[41]


Diagram of the inner solar system with the circular orbits of Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars going around the Sun.  The orbit of the Tesla Roadster is shown in red, also encircling the Sun, but in an ellipse shape that touches Earth orbit on one side of the Sun, and extends outwards beyond Mars orbit on the other side of the Sun.
Orbit of the Roadster, with the planets of the inner Solar System for context. Its aphelion is ~250 million kilometres (1.66 au).

The car was launched into an heliocentric orbit that will cross the orbit of Mars and reach a distance of 1.66 au from the Sun.[4] With an inclination of roughly 1 degree to the ecliptic plane, compared to Mars' 1.85° inclination, the trajectory by design cannot intercept Mars, so the car will not fly by Mars nor enter an orbit around Mars.[42]

Even if the launch had targeted an actual Mars transfer orbit, the Falcon Heavy upper stage, which is still attached to the car, lacks the propellant, maneuvering, and communications capabilities required to enter Mars orbit. Launching the Roadster into this orbit has demonstrated that Falcon Heavy can launch payloads that could reach Mars.[42] The car and second stage combination is moving away from Earth at a speed of 12,908 km/h (8,021 mph).[43] The maximum speed of the car relative to the Sun will be close to 121,600 km/h (75,600 mph) at perihelion.


Based on optical observations made using a robotic telescope at the Warrumbungle Observatory, Dubbo, Australia and refinement of the orbit, a close re-encounter with Earth (originally predicted for 2073) is not possible.[44] In 2020, the car will pass about 6.9 million kilometers (4.3 million miles) from Mars, well outside Mars' gravitational sphere of influence.[45]

The Virtual Telescope Project observed the Tesla two days after its launch, where it had a magnitude of 15.5,[46] comparable to Pluto's moon Charon. The Roadster was automatically spotted and logged by the Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System (ATLAS) telescope operated by the University of Hawaii.[47] The car was observed by the Deimos Sky Survey (DeSS) at a distance of 720,000 kilometres (450,000 mi) with a flashing effect suggesting spinning.[48]

Mostly black photograph with small white dots of varying sizes making up a starfield, dated as 8 February 2018.  Four white dots in a line are each circled in red and labelled with a timestamp at giving the position of the Tesla Roadster as it moves across the sky at four minute intervals.
Roadster photographed with a 0.43 m telescope of Dubbo Observatory in Australia, on 8 February 2018, 16:29–16:50 UTC, at a distance of 550,000 km (1.4 Lunar distances) from Earth. Varying brightness suggests spinning.

Through measuring changes in apparent brightness of the object, astronomers have determined that the Roadster is rotating with a period of 4.7589 +/- 0.0060 minutes.[49] By February 11, 2018, astrometry measurements from 241 independent observations had been collated, refining the positions to within one-tenth of an arcsecond[50]—more accurate than for most observations of objects in space.[50]


Musk speculated that the car could drift in space for a billion years.[14] According to chemist William Carroll, solar radiation, cosmic radiation, and micrometeoroid impacts will structurally damage the car over time.[51] Radiation will eventually break down any material with carbon–carbon bonds, including carbon fiber parts. Tires, paint, plastic and leather might last only about a year, while carbon fiber parts will last considerably longer. Eventually, only the aluminum frame, inert metals, and glass not shattered by meteoroids will remain.[51]

A draft paper uploaded to arXiv, based on calculations starting from February 10, 2018 and evaluating 240 simulations over a 3-million-year timespan found a probability of the Roadster colliding with Earth at approximately 6%, or with Venus at approximately 2.5%.[52] These probabilities of collision are similar to those of other near-Earth objects.[52] The half-life for the tested orbits was calculated as approximately 20 million years, but with trajectories varying significantly following a close approach to the Earth–Moon system in 2091.[52]


The choice of this car as a dummy payload was variously interpreted as a marketing move for Tesla, an art object, or space debris.


Musk was lauded as a visionary marketer and brand manager by controlling both the timing and the content of his corporate public relations.[53][54][55][56] After the launch, Scientific American said using a car was not entirely pointless, in the sense that something of that size and weight was necessary for a meaningful test. "Thematically, it was a perfect fit" to use the Tesla car, and there was no reason not to take the opportunity to remind the auto industry that Musk was challenging the status quo in that arena, as well as in space.[53] Advertising Age agreed with Business Insider that the Roadster space launch was the "greatest ever car commercial without a dime spent on advertising", demonstrating that Musk is "miles ahead of the rest" in reaching young consumers, where "mere mortals scrabble about spending millions to fight each other over seconds of air time", Musk "just executes his vision."[54][55] Alex Hern, technology reporter for The Guardian, said the choice to launch a car was a "hybrid of genuine breakthrough and nerd-baiting publicity stunt" without "any real point beyond generating good press pics", which should not detract from the much more important technological milestone represented by the launch of the rocket itself.[57]

Lori Garver, a former NASA deputy director initially said the choice of payload for the Falcon Heavy maiden flight is a gimmick and a loss of opportunity to further advance science—but later clarified that "I was told by a SpaceX VP (vice president) at the launch that they offered free launches to NASA, Air Force etc. but got no takers."[58]


Alice Gorman, a lecturer in archaeology and space studies said that its primary purpose is symbolic communication, that "the red sports car symbolises masculinity – power, wealth and speed[59] – but also how fragile masculinity is" and then quoting another archeologist, that "The car is also an armour against dying, a talisman that quells a profound fear of mortality."[60] Gorman wrote that "the spacesuit is also about death. […] The Starman was never alive, but now he's haunting space."[60]

The Verge likened the Roadster to a "Readymade" work of art, such as Marcel Duchamp's 1917 piece Fountain, created by placing an everyday object in an unusual position, context and orientation.[61]

Space debris[edit]

Orbital-debris expert Darren McKnight said that since the car is out of Earth orbit, he sees no risk here, and added: "The enthusiasm and interest that [Musk] generates more than offsets the infinitesimally small 'littering' of the cosmos."[62] Tommy Sanford, director of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, opined that the car and its rocket stage are no more "space junk" than the mundane material usually launched on other test flights. Mass simulators are often deliberately placed in a graveyard orbit or sent on a deep space trajectory, where they are not a hazard.[63] Hugh Lewis, an expert in space debris at the University of Southampton, tweeted "Intentionally launching a car to a long-lived orbit is not what you want to hear from a company planning to fly 1000s satellites in LEO."[64]

The Planetary Society was concerned that launching a non-sterile object to interplanetary space may risk biological contamination of a planetary object.[65][66]

Cultural impact[edit]

The car in space quickly became a topic for Internet memes.[67][68] Western Australia Police distributed a picture of a Radar gun aimed at the Roadster whilst above Australia.[69][70] Škoda produced a parody video of a Škoda Superb being driven to Mars (a village in central France).[71][72]

Some news reports observed a similarity between the real pictures of a car orbiting the Earth and the title sequence of the 1981 animation film Heavy Metal, where a space traveler lands on Earth in a two-seater convertible.[73][74]

See also[edit]


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External links[edit]