Researchers have found that Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster car, launched towards the orbital plane of Mars, has a small but not insignificant chance of hitting Earth in the next few million years.
Writing in their paper, available on arXiv and to be published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, the team from the University of Toronto in Canada said there was a 6 percent chance of it hitting Earth in the next million years. That rises to 10 percent over 3 million years.
The team, who specialize in orbital mechanics, used their existing models to simulate 240 future possible paths for the car, launched on SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket on February 6. Although they note it is hard to get exact figures due to its chaotic orbit, it is possible to determine statistical probabilities of collisions far into the future.
“We have all the software ready, and when we saw the launch last week we thought, ‘Let’s see what happens,’” Hanno Rein, the study’s lead author, said in Science Magazine.
“So we ran the [Tesla’s] orbit forward for several million years.”
The car is on an elliptical orbit lasting 1.5 years that takes it out to roughly 1.7 AU (astronomical units, 1 AU is the Earth-Sun distance), about the orbit of Mars. It then swings inward to about 0.99 AU before heading out again.
The team found that the car’s first close encounter with Earth occurs in 2091, when it will approach to about the same distance as the Moon and possibly be visible to telescopes on Earth. After that, there are a number of different possibilities, depending on what happens to its orbital path as a result of interacting with other bodies.
Some of the outcomes gave the car a 2.5 percent chance of hitting Venus within the next million years, while there was a tiny chance of it hitting the Sun in 3 million years. There’s a 50 percent chance the car will survive for a few tens of millions of years. Earth seemed to be the main target though, although we probably don’t have too much to worry about.
“It will either burn up or maybe one component will reach the surface,” Rein said. “There is no risk to health and safety whatsoever.”
And that’s even if the car survives that long in its current form. By some predictions, it will have been mostly stripped away by radiation within just a year. If it ever does make it back to Earth, it might not look too recognizable.
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