Hats off to Elon Musk because he's done it. He and his team at SpaceX on Tuesday successfully launched the Falcon Heavy rocket on a mission to Mars—with a Tesla Roadster strapped to the nose.
This is a test run for what's likely to be more missions to Mars, and it's being used to gather data including environmental factors that potential future human travelers will have to endure. For example, during the course of its voyage the Roadster will be bombarded with extremely high levels of radiation. The car, which features a dummy wearing a SpaceX suit in the driver's seat, was enclosed for the launch but became fully exposed once out of Earth's orbit.
The electric sports car will eventually enter an elliptical orbit around the sun that will take it close to Mars. However, the car won't actually reach the surface of the red planet. Musk says the car, which was his own personal example of Tesla's first model, will likely remain in its orbit around the sun for millions of years. SpaceX mounted cameras to the car to capture the journey as it unfolds, a journey that will see the car reach speeds of 7 miles per second and travel some 250 million miles from Earth.
The Falcon Heavy rocket used for the launch is the most powerful in the world by a factor of two, being capable of carrying 141,000 pounds in its payload, thanks to a combination of three Falcon 9 rockets each fitted with nine Merlin core engines that together generate more than 5 million pounds of thrust, or roughly the same as 18 Boeing 747s.
Incredibly, SpaceX was able to recover two of the Falcon 9 boosters, which safely returned to the launch site at the historic Apollo-era Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The third was meant to return to a drone ship in the in the Atlantic Ocean but ran out of fuel early. It ended up hitting the water at 300 mph and crashing into the drone ship.
Musk has long been a fan of the idea of sending humans to Mars, something he said in 2016 would take four decades at the earliest to achieve. In the meantime, he's focused on getting the cost of space launches as low as possible. He told reporters on Monday that the successful launch of the Falcon Heavy would mean that heavy payloads could be sent to space for only marginally more cost than sending something with a single $62 million Falcon 9 rocket. He estimated that the cost of a Falcon Heavy launch could come in at around $90 million.
After Tuesday's launch, Musk said SpaceX now has the momentum to begin developing even larger rockets. He mentioned a “BFR” (Big F... Rocket) that could be ready for launch in the mid-2020s, and said he hoped the Falcon Heavy launch would encourage other companies and countries to join him in the new space race.
“We want a new space race,” he said. “Races are exciting.”