Elon Musk’s Tesla overshot Mars’ orbit, but it won’t reach the asteroid belt as claimed

Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster, which launched on top of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy on Tuesday, is going farther out into the Solar System than originally planned. The car was supposed to be put on a path around the Sun that would take the vehicle out to the distance of Mars’ orbit. But the rocket carrying the car seems to have overshot that trajectory and has put the Tesla in an orbit that extends beyond the Red Planet’s path. However, the Tesla won’t be making it to the asteroid belt, as SpaceX CEO Elon Musk originally claimed.

After launch, the Tesla cruised through space for a good six hours — a trip that was also live-streamed by SpaceX. This “coast” phase was meant to show off a special orbital maneuver for the US Air Force before the rocket completed one final engine burn in space and put the car on its final orbit. It looks like that burn might have happened somewhere over Southern California, as some people in the area started reporting sightings of the rocket igniting in the night sky after 9:30PM ET on Tuesday.

Now it seems that engine ignition worked a little too well. Musk originally tweeted out a map on Tuesday of what was thought to be the Roadster’s final orbit after the burn, showing just how far out the car would travel. And it looked like the Tesla would go out into the asteroid belt, getting relatively close to the orbit of the dwarf planet Ceres.

But astronomers online noticed some discrepancies with the numbers Musk tweeted, and SpaceX ultimately sent a revised orbit to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory on Wednesday (You can find it by selecting “target body” -143205.) The new orbit shows that the car will indeed travel farther out than the orbit of Mars, but not far enough to make it to the asteroid belt. The belt begins about 329 million miles from the Sun, and the Tesla will reach a distance about 160 million miles away from the Solar System’s star.

Before the Tesla launched, Musk said that there was an extremely tiny chance that the vehicle would ever hit Mars, and that seems to hold true. Within the next decade, the Roadster will make its closest approach to Mars in October of 2020, coming within 4.3 million miles, according to Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at Harvard and spaceflight expert. He also figured out the next time the Roadster gets “close” to Earth is in March of 2021, when it passes within 28 million miles of our planet.

The Tesla’s journey certainly demonstrates the Falcon Heavy’s capabilities of putting objects into deep space. The idea that the rocket could send things to the asteroid belt is likely to be attractive to some space companies, like Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, which are working on technologies to mine water from asteroids someday. But even though the Roadster won’t be venturing into the belt, it will still overshoot the orbit of Mars, which is good news for scientists looking to send vehicles to the Red Planet some day.

Update February 8th, 5:20AM ET: This article has been updated to include a revised orbit for the Tesla given to NASA, which shows the car won’t make it to the asteroid belt.


The asteroid belt. Surely one of the best places to test that auto-pilot feature!

Right?! Good thing this is a Tesla Roadster.

Exciting times. Surely the renewed interest in space will be helpful for NASA as well.

Screw NASA. They’ve spent more time hindering development than doing anything productive, and Congress refuses to give them any real budget for the few people in the agency who do want to do anything.

agreed – its time to take technology out of the hands of politicians, and religion. These idiotic ignorant people (a vast majority of politicians – i am sure there are some exceptions) have no business directing the advancements of science and engineering.

NASA hindering development? From what I heard they were helping/cooperating with SpaceX.

Just need more scientific and engineering minds in politics. It’s time to take politics back from wherever the boozos we have in office now came from.

SpaceX wouldn’t exist without nasa/dod…

so that’s how they plan to test the safety feature
"our vehicle airbags will protect you even in the case of getting hit by an asteroid" no one can beat that

Airbag in space spells disaster. It would explode.

Well, it’s explosive in an atmosphere too.

Yep, my dad was burned from the gunpowder in his old Honda Accord’s airbags when his car was totalled by an idiot novice driver. He also had some glass embedded in him from what was left of the windshield but that’s neither here nor there.

It’s not gunpowder. It’s usually RDX.

it could still reenter mars orbit though

Could be they weren’t actually aiming for Mars and decided to burn longer to see how far out they could get it, but being able to hit a target accurately is something of a big deal with these things when you start talking about real payloads or passengers.

Same thoughts

The burned till fuel ran as low as possible without blowing up… That’s a great safety feature to to test out, and perhaps more important than correctly injecting a dead hunk of metal into mars orbit.

Given that there are no solar panels, they clearly didn’t plan this far ahead… it really is a "miracle" that thing worked.

Going to put this here as it is the first instance in the comments. It’s a half hour of press conference held right after the launch, in a two hour loop. Musk explains the fuel. The batteries. The six hour coast phase. Pretty much everything. It’s a good watch.

The important thing is proving the 6 hour coast to the USAF. After the engine restart proved that, they burned the upper stage to propellant repletion to see what the limits are. Now they have data points useful for calculating mission mass to any distance.

More impressively that coast was while sitting around in one of the Van Allen Belts

Right on. The plan, was to test the capabilities of the rocket. The roadster is just icing on the cake. Surely the space reporter understands this?

Exactly this: they just burned until the fuel light came on, and got more than they expected. That’s a good thing, not a missed target.

Relighting after the long coast is key to specific customers. Mentioning the Asteroid Belt is likely a teaser for companies like Planetary Resources.

Yup,as usual a verge article is ‘mostly’ accurate. They did a ‘burn to completion’ so the so called overshoot was always highly likely. Musk clearly stated that at the post launch press conference. Guess I shouldn’t complain as any space coverage is better than non.

So SpaceX can land rockets back on Earth – I’m still amazed at that – but is unable to bring a payload to a given orbit like other rockets have been doing for a long time? Seems a bit odd…

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