SpaceX Falcon Heavy: Elon Musk's Tesla Roadster Will Disintegrate in Space Within a Year

Right now, a bright red sports car is careering through space on a journey that has taken it from Florida out into space, where it will travel beyond Mars and toward the Asteroid Belt. The whimsical payload of yesterday’s SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch, CEO Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster, is hoped to fly through space for a billion years or so.

Unfortunately for Musk, radiation from the sun and a barrage of space junk might make that dream impossible. According to Indiana University chemist William Carroll, the car may not even make it through a single year, LiveScience reports.

Radiation and space junk

There is an awful lot of rock in space for the car to avoid. A vast amount of debris is floating through space, from micrometeorites to asteroids. Even if it avoids collisions with big hunks of rock, it will be very difficult to keep out of the way of the tiny pieces of rock that fill larger chunks with holes, Carroll told LiveScience.

2_7_Falcon Heavy Launch SpaceX's Falcon Heavy lifts off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on February 6. SpaceX/Public Domain

Another imminent threat comes from radiation. We are shielded on Earth from much of the Sun’s radiation and cosmic rays by the atmosphere and the planet’s magnetic field. In space there is no such shield.

"All of the organics will be subjected to degradation by the various kinds of radiation that you will run into there," Carroll said. This means all of the plastic parts of the car and its carbon-fiber frame. Largely comprised of carbon-carbon bonds and carbon-hydrogen bonds, these chemical attractions can falter under the intense energy from the radiation. As the bonds break, the car can literally fall apart.

The bonds will break at random and, over time, all organic parts of the car will simply disintegrate. Bit by bit, materials will be torn apart as their chemical bonds snap. Carroll said: "Those organics, in that environment, I wouldn't give them a year." Eventually, the car will be a husk of its former self, with only inorganic parts like its aluminum frame, persisting.

Whether anyone will be around to recognize the floating shell a billion years from now is another question entirely.

Watch Starman waiting in the sky

If you want to witness the car’s historic journey through space, you can follow it live in the video below.


Credit: SpaceX

Musk revealed in a press call Monday that the Falcon Heavy would likely never take humans into space—a goal the company always intended to meet. This task will now be reserved for SpaceX’s upcoming Big Falcon Rocket (BFR).

Yesterday, the rocket did carry a passenger aboard its sports car payload: “Starman,” or, a mannequin in a SpaceX uniform. It is unknown how well Starman will fare in space, but as he doesn’t have messy human innards which can swell in the vacuum of space, he should at least do better than a real man.

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