Last week an enormous rocket took off from Earth and placed something a little, how shall we say, different into our solar system: a red Tesla Roadster, with a mannequin in a space suit strapped into the driver's seat (as the car blasted David Bowie's "Space Oddity").
Plenty of questions to ask here, among them: Why float a car through space when it's not going to be driven? Why does a mannequin need a space suit? And what, exactly, is Elon Musk compensating for?
But at the end of that line of questioning, the easiest one to stop at is: What the hell's gonna happen to it?
We're hard up for an answer on most of those questions, but that last one has answers — or, at least, potential outcomes. Here's what could happen to Musk's spacecar, and anything it comes in contact with along the way.
Scenario No. 1: Radiation Rips It Apart.
The car may be drifting, but it's not doing so peacefully. It's being bombarded with super high levels of stellar radiation, which will eventually destroy any organic material that make up the car, as LiveScience recently reported. Among other things, organic material (anything carbon-based) on the Roadster includes plastics, which make up parts of its windshield and various parts of its interior, along with its carbon-fiber frame.
Indiana University chemist and plastics/organic molecules expert William Carroll told LiveScience that the radiation would randomly snap the bonds within the molecules themselves, causing anything organic to splinter and flake away into the ether — and do it quickly.
"Those organics, in that environment, I wouldn't give them a year," Carroll added.
Scientifically, this doesn't really matter; it's not as though the Roadster is useful for an exploratory mission, and the mannequin in the driver's seat won't be any worse off floating by itself in space. The car just wouldn't look as good after it's warped by space — but we won't even really get to watch that happen, except for the occasional glimpse. According to Musk, the livestream from the car has already gone dead.
Scenario No. 2: Asteroid + Car = Car Pieces.
The Roadster was initially headed for Mars' orbit, but that's not where it's going now, thanks to an unexpectedly powerful boost, as SpaceX reported to NASA (and Musk tweeted). Instead, the car will be moving toward the asteroid belt — or, according to more recent calculations, somewhere near it.
Third burn successful. Exceeded Mars orbit and kept going to the Asteroid Belt. pic.twitter.com/bKhRN73WHF
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 7, 2018
As the name indicates, this area of space is rather dense with rocky objects. But it's not a foregone conclusion the car will end up between a rock and, well, another rock. As Jonathan McDowell, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told Vice News: “Whenever you see an asteroid belt in movies, like 'Star Wars,' it looks like they’re 10 feet apart. They’re not. When you're on an asteroid, the next-closest asteroid looks like a distant star. It’s mostly empty space.”
So the odds of the Roadster encountering an object large enough to break it apart are slim. But they're not zero.
In the unlikely event that a collision did occur, the car could break up into pieces, which would contribute to the growing problem of space debris. That space junk could pose a hazard to future space missions. Or, the impact could just send pieces of the Roadster off on new trajectories, towards Mars or other planets.
Scenario No. 3: The Car Is Pulled Into Orbit Around Mars, and Damages Our Satellites.
We—People of Earth—currently have six active satellites orbiting the Red Planet. Recently, images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter helped scientists identify eight large patches of ice exposed on the surface. This sort of information could be crucial for future human visitors that want something to drink.
Based on its current trajectory, the Roadster should make its closest approach to Mars in October 2020, McDowell tweeted. It'll be just 4.3 million miles from the Red Planet — pretty close in space terms, but still distant enough that we don't need to worry that the car would hurtle into the planet itself (it could be pulled in slowly, over a few hundred years, but it won't crash quickly).
If, however, the Roadster were struck by debris, pieces of it could be propelled into the Martian atmosphere, damaging any spacecraft there.
(Yeah: just like in Gravity.)
As for how scientists using these satellites to study (or even prepare for a potential mission to) Mars would feel about that possibility, the words you're looking for are "probably not great." But since that debris likely wouldn't reach Mars until far in the future, it could also pose a threat to any humans who would be orbiting the planet. And if there's a future where people are living on Mars? Showering the planet with centuries-old debris from an unused sports car could damage the satellites they use to communicate with Earth. If you think bad drivers with fast cars are irritating now, imagine how annoyed you'd be at that.
Worst Case Scenario, No. 4: The Car Crashes On Mars, Contaminating It With Microbes.
The worst thing that could happen to Musk's car, if it's not felled by cosmic rays, an asteroid, an orbital pattern, or a satellite? It actually makes it on Mars. Or some other celestial body in our solar system. And that debris would basically colonize the planet, eliminating anything that may already exist there. Yeah, it sounds like a reach. And yet:
Mars may have supported life in the past, and there's a very small chance it hosts some, still. Any Earthly microbes that survived the cold, airless sojourn through space could multiply on Mars, killing off native life. Or it could make it impossible for future science missions to tell the difference between life that was already on Mars, and what we brought there. Same thing could happen if the car (or parts of it) made it to other places that host life in our solar system, like Europa or Enceladus.
But this catastrophic scenario is also the least likely. The Roadster's so far from any other planet that it would take an extraordinary set of circumstances for this to happen. First, something would have to re-direct the car's trajectory — a collision with a large object, or a gradual change it its orbit thanks to the pull of other planets and the sun (which The Atlantic reports will indeed happen over hundreds of years). This trajectory change would then have to bring the car near enough to a planet to be sucked into strongly its gravity. Finally, any Roadster remnants would have to make it through the planet's atmosphere without being burned up entirely — hard enough to accomplish for spacecraft we've designed specifically to be able to do so.
But, hey, this is space, where the extraordinary seems to happen an awful lot (like the fact that we exist). So, you never know. And for what it's worth, at the time of writing, the Roadster was roughly 36,000 miles (58,000 kilometers) from its home planet, and 148 million miles (238 million kilometers) from Mars. That means we've got a bit of time to monitor this space traveler, and to prepare for its potential effects (or inevitable demise) as Musk's car becomes an intergalactic pile of parts.