Little red Tesla Roadster could collide with Earth within a million years

The little red sports car fired into space by Elon Musk last week has a six per cent chance of colliding with the Earth in the next million years, according to calculations by a team of astronomers.

A view of the Tesla Roadster gliding through space with Earth in the background

The team, based at universities in Toronto and Prague, have produced a research paper following launch of the $200,000 Tesla Roadster into space by SpaceX.

It was the only cargo on a test flight of billionaire entrepreneur Musk’s new Falcon Heavy rocket from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida.

Camera attached to the car sent back astonishing views of its passenger, Starman, a dummy in a spacesuit, looking relaxed in the driving seat as the Earth disappeared into the distance.

The supercar is now on a flightpath that sends it swinging from the asteroid belt back to the inner solar system. It will make its first close approach to Earth in 2091.

A highly technical scientific paper reporting the astronomers’ findings has been published on the open access site arXiv.org maintained by Cornell University Library. It is entitled: The random walk of cars and their collision probabilities with planets.

SpaceX’s videostream showed live views of Starman in the Roadster

Its authors are Assistant Professor Hanno Rein and colleague Dr Daniel Tamayo, of the University of Toronto, who are usually more concerned with planetary formation and evolution, together with Professor David Vokrouhlicky, of Charles University, Prague, an expert on black holes and galaxies.

In their paper, they conclude: “The Tesla is currently on an Earth and Mars crossing orbit. Its first close encounter that may come within a lunar distance of the Earth will occur in 2091.

“On timescales significantly longer than a century, continued close encounters will render precise longterm predictions of the object’s chaotic orbit impossible.

“However, using an ensemble of several hundred realizations we were able to statistically determine the probability of the Tesla colliding with the solar system planets on astronomical timescales.”

The astronomers say that the Tesla’s orbital evolution remains dominated by close encounters with the rocky planets, in particular Earth, Venus and Mars. They add: “We do find many cases where the Tesla impacts the terrestrial planets. Specifically, we numerically calculate a collision probability of around six per cent and around 2.5 per cent with the Earth and Venus over one million years, respectively.”

South African-born Musk, 46, who made his fortune from online banking giant PayPal, is also head of electric car makers Tesla.

His SpaceX company has already become a commercial success in launching Dragon supply ships to the International Space Station. His ambition is to fly people to Mars.

SpaceX’s video of the Falcon Heavy test launch.

A number of astronomers, both amateur and professional, managed to image the Tesla Roadster as it left Earth orbit. The time-lapse sequence below was taken remotely by a team from Agnes Scott College, in Atlanta, Georgia, using the SARA-South telescope at Cerro Tololo Interamerican Observatory in Chile.

Several 60-second exposures were made, on 09 February, 2018, the day after launch, between about 04:30 and 08:00 UT.


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