Early on Saturday morning (or Friday evening, depending on where you are) Ol’ Musky let rip with this pearler.
Which is all fun and games until you realise this is Elon Musk, and he might actually just do it. Now the obvious question is:
Just to recap, this is what we are talking about:
About a hour after reading this tweet I realised that I know just about enough to try and figure out if this was even possible. So lets have a look at the implications.
The first thing we should investigate is if there is a Earth-Mars transit window in 2018. Currently it is only feasible to travel from Earth to Mars every two years and two months. This is when the Earth and Mars are closest and you can get from one to the other with the minimum-energy – the transit window. Even Elon Musk has to obey the rules of Physics (for now).
After a quick search it seems that there is a launch window to Mars in early 2018! The window is between Apr 2018 and May 2018. This is a bit later than Musk says the demo flight of Falcon Heavy will happen (Jan 2018) from the old Apollo 11 launch pad at Cape Canaveral. I’ll get back to this later. Conclusion: It is about the right time to launch something to Mars.
The Falcon Heavy
Falcon Heavy is SpaceX’s newest rocket they’ve been working on and was slated for its first launch late in 2018. This launch date has now slipped into early 2018. The Falcon Heavy uses three of SpaceX’s current Falcon 9 booster cores (think Falcon 9 (rocket) but times three) and it has 27 Merlin 1D rocket engines. The Falcon Heavy is designed to lift heavy payloads into Earth orbit – and beyond.
From SpaceX’s website we can see that the Falcon Heavy can lift 16 800 kg to Mars. The 2008 Tesla Roadster’s weight is round 1 300 kg. That is well within the payload capability of the Falcon Heavy for Mars, taking into account that you need quite a bit extra hardware to mount the car and any extra equipment or avionics. Conclusion: The Falcon Heavy will more than likely get a Tesla Roadster to Mars
What would the people say?
There is international policy around planetary protection that is defined by the United Nations and adhered to by all the major space agencies.
Planetary protection is the term given to the practice of protecting solar system bodies (i.e., planets, moons, comets, and asteroids) from contamination by Earth life, and protecting Earth from possible life forms that may be returned from other solar system bodies. Source
If you had to distil this into a sentence it would probably be: “Don’t litter”. According to his tweet, Musk doesn’t want to land on Mars but enter Mars orbit. I wasn’t sure if this type of mission is covered by any of the best practices around planetary protection. According to NASA a flyby or orbiter (which is what the Roadster would be) is classified as a Category III mission. This basically means a whole lot of paperwork, analysis and “imposition of controls on contamination”. Conclusion: The Roadster is probably not going to enter Mars orbit.
So what does this all mean? The Falcon Heavy will get Musky’s Roadster to Mars but I doubt it will enter Mars orbit. I am guessing it will most likely fly by Mars but at a distance large enough so that they don’t have to worry about any planetary protection regulations. This is also supported by the fact that they will be launching quite a bit early as far as the launch-window to Mars is concerned.
I am guessing some sort of Tesla Roadster Mars selfie, which would be rad.