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Is Elon Musk even allowed to send his car to deep space?

Is Elon Musk even allowed to send his car to deep space?


The commercial space industry is outpacing government oversight

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Image: Tesla/Alex Parkin

After much fanfare, Elon Musk made it clear that he does plan to launch his Tesla Roadster to Mars on the Falcon Heavy next year — but questions remained over whether the mission is allowed. Are there any major federal hurdles SpaceX has to overcome in order to launch the very first sports car into deep space?

Musk initially said he wanted to send the car to Mars orbit, which could raise concerns about planetary protection. That’s the concept of preventing contamination of worlds in our Solar System with Earth life. Honoring planetary protection is a matter of international law, as it’s mandated in the Outer Space Treaty — a 50-year-old document that dictates guidelines for what countries can and cannot do in space. And the US is ultimately responsible for US commercial space companies adhering to the treaty.

“It’s a dummy payload — an exquisite dummy payload.”

The Tesla Roadster isn’t really going to Mars, though, so SpaceX isn’t going to run afoul of international space law; instead, the car will be delivered near where Mars orbits around the Sun, about 141 million miles from Earth, and then left to travel forever through space, according to further clarification from Musk. As long as the Roadster doesn’t interfere with the Red Planet, SpaceX should be fine. “It’s a dummy payload — an exquisite dummy payload — but what it does fall down to is it’s not performing any operation in space,” Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, tells The Verge.

If SpaceX wanted the Roadster to perform a specific task — such as land on Mars or an asteroid — it would be a different story. Such a mission would fall into a weird regulatory gap that has been plaguing the US government for a while now. The US has successfully overseen the launch and licensing of commercial satellites in orbit around Earth for the last 50 years, but there’s currently no legal framework to oversee what are deemed “non-traditional” commercial space missions. These include things like sending a rover to the Moon, launching a human habitat into orbit... or sending a car to Mars.

An artistic rendering of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket
An artistic rendering of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket
Image: SpaceX

“One of the big challenges is how does the government say yes to a lot of these new innovative private sector space activities,” Brian Weeden, a space expert and director of programming for the Secure World Foundation, tells The Verge.

The process for launching satellites has been more or less streamlined for a while. Companies that want to send up a payload have to apply for a license with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in order to use part of the radio spectrum to communicate with the satellite. And they also have to apply for a launch license with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which ensures that the mission will not cause damage to property on the ground or be a danger to the public.

“how does the government say yes to a lot of these new innovative private sector space activities.”

But when a mission involves more than launching satellites, that’s where companies enter something of a Wild West scenario. There is no framework for overseeing a company’s actions in space; once a vehicle deploys from a rocket into orbit, that’s where federal jurisdiction ends. “The FAA’s authority is over the launch vehicle; once the payload separates, they have no authority there,” says Weeden.

That’s starting to become a problem as space companies propose more ambitious missions. The US government needs a way to ensure that companies won’t get the nation in trouble by violating the Outer Space Treaty while in space. And planetary protection is definitely a concern, as more companies talk about sending spacecraft to the Moon or Mars. The treaty states that countries should explore other worlds and “conduct exploration of them so as to avoid their harmful contamination.”

Currently, NASA adheres to strict planetary protection guidelines set forth by an international agency called COSPAR, which details how spacecraft should be handled depending on where they’re going. Earth is teeming with microbes that can easily hitchhike on spacecraft, and if we contaminate another planet with our own bacteria, it’ll be hard to study that alien world in its pristine state. So for any spacecraft heading to a place that might host life, such as Mars, there are important rules to follow.

COSPAR rules say that rockets that send spacecraft to Mars have to have a less than one in 10,000 chance of hitting the planet. And Mars orbiters don’t have to adhere to strict cleaning requirements, as long as there is a 99 percent chance of missing Mars in 20 years, and a 95 percent chance of missing the planet in 50 years. “There are no particular requirements that would have to be met if that orbit is not going to impact Mars for a long period of time,” John Rummel, NASA’s former planetary protection officer, tells The Verge.

the upcoming Falcon Heavy test flight does illustrate the need for a regulatory framework

If SpaceX wanted to do more with the Roadster, however, then it might run into some friction. Such a scenario happened last year when private spaceflight company Moon Express sought approval to send its future lunar lander to the Moon. The company feared the State Department might step in to block the launch; there was no way for the government to ensure that Moon Express would follow the law while on the Moon. So as a short-term solution, Moon Express voluntarily offered the State Department all the details of how the company would comply with the Outer Space Treaty. It’s possible SpaceX may do something similar.

“I’m sure knowing the way SpaceX operates, they’re giving them everything but the kitchen sink and being incredibly diligent on this process,” says Stallmer.

Oddly enough, the upcoming Falcon Heavy test flight does illustrate the need for a regulatory framework — and soon. SpaceX has not been silent about its deep space ambitions, and once the Falcon Heavy is online, the company has even bigger plans for the rocket beyond launching cars. For instance, SpaceX plans to send two tourists around the Moon as early as next year (though there hasn’t been much of an update on that). And SpaceX has even bigger plans to build the new BFR, or Big Falcon Rocket, which could someday take people to the surface of the Moon and Mars.

Fortunately, Congress is working on a solution. In June, the House passed the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act of 2017, which would give the Department of Commerce oversight of commercial activities in space. It’s still unclear exactly if and when this bill will become law, but it’s clear that something is needed. The lack of oversight in this area is becoming harder to ignore. As Weeden says: “This is just another example of how the commercial space world is outpacing the existing oversight process.”