Spaceflight company SpaceX have successfully launched their new Falcon Heavy rocket and put its payload – a Tesla Roadster ‘driven’ by a mannequin named Starman – into orbit around the Sun.
The rocket is not only the second most powerful ever built, second only to the Saturn V, but is also reusable.
The Falcon Heavy has the potential to revolutionise spaceflight as it can put massive payloads into space for a fraction of the cost of systems currently available.
Before the rocket launch from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk stated that he considered the chances of the mission being a success about 50 per cent, but in the end the test was nearly perfect.
After the test launch, the two side booster rockets returned to Earth and so could be reusued for a future flight (though there are no plans to currently do so).
The middle booster, however, ran out of fuel on one of its three engines and crashed into the sea at 480km per hour.
The highly unusual payload initially coasted nearby to Earth, while livestreaming some spectacular – if slightly surreal – views of Earth appearing over the dashboard of the sports car.
The Tesla Roadster was playing David Bowie while it floated by Earth, and mannequin driver Starman was kept safe from the vacuum in a custom spacesuit.
Credit: Space X
After around six hours, its secondary stage engines fired, intending to send the roadster into the orbit of Mars.
However, the rockets appear to have overshot, and the car is now on a trajectory that will see Starman taking a trip through the asteroid belt instead.
This may be a difficult journey to navigate, as the orbit passes close to Jupiter and the gravity of this gas giant is likely to throw the car off course, potentially resulting in the first car accident in space.
As the vehicle was not created in a sterile environment such a collision would risk contaminating any planet or asteroid it crashes into.
Many researchers on Twitter have called on Space X to release more details of the orbit so that they can determine the spacecraft’s ultimate fate.
The roadster’s new orbit will take it out to almost the orbit of Ceres.
Credit: SpaceX/Elon Musk
In the future, the Falcon Heavy will not only be capable of launching the equivalent of a double decker bus into the orbit of Mars, but because it is reusuable it will only cost tens of millions of dollars to do so, rather than the billions that it would cost using single-use rockets.
With such a magnificent machine on offer, some critics questioned why a more useful payload wasn’t onboard.
“Silly things are important,” said Musk defending his choice in a press conference after the launch.
“Concrete is so boring. The imagery of it will get people around the world excited.”