Spacefaring Tesla may not survive road trip past Mars, IU prof says

Herald-Times |

--IU chemist William Carroll didn't think Elon Musk's Tesla Roadster would last a week in the harsh environment of space.

His prediction on the cosmic car that left the atmosphere last week as the payload of the Falcon Heavy rocket was quoted in an article by Live Science, a science news website.

To say his comment was off the cuff "is way too precise a description," Carroll said, laughing, in a phone interview Monday. But he still isn't optimistic about the car's fate as it cruises toward the asteroid belt beyond Mars.

Elon Musk, billionaire CEO of SpaceX, shot the cherry-red Tesla Roadster into space with the Falcon Heavy, which is now the most powerful rocket flying today. In the car are a spacesuit-clad mannequin nicknamed "Starman" at the wheel and a coin-sized data Arch data disk, containing Isaac Asimov's "Foundation" trilogy.

Musk tweeted in December that he "love(d) the thought of a car drifting apparently endlessly through space and perhaps being discovered by an alien race millions of years in the future."

Carroll isn't convinced the car will make it that far -- but if it does, it likely won't be recognizable as a car by then.

"Space is a hostile environment. Yes, it's a vacuum, but that's not really the hostile part," he said. The bigger problem will be radiation: X-rays, gamma rays, cosmic radiation, ionic particles coming off the sun. And that's assuming it doesn't get battered to bits by wandering space debris along the way.

"When you're not shielded by a metal coat (like a space shuttle) or an atmosphere, there's a lot of damaging stuff out there in space," Carroll said. Radiation will take a harsh toll on the carbon-based chemical bonds in the car's materials, from the metal frame to the leather seats to the rubber tires.

The radiation won't cause the car to dissolve into dust, or anything quite so dramatic, but Carroll predicts it will deteriorate over time as it would on Earth, but on an accelerated level.

The cherry-red paint will lose color as the parts of the car exposed to the sun's ionizing radiation bleach out. Materials will become brittle as radiation weakens their chemical bonds. Eventually, those materials could break apart, separating from the car and drifting off into the void.

So what's the life span of a car in space? A decade?

"Ten years would be kind of outside for me," Carroll said. "Somewhere in the middle? I just don't know."

The truth is, no one really knows what will happen to the car, because no one has tested a car's ability to withstand cosmic levels of radiation before. There has never been a need to do so. And there's no footage of the car's journey -- the camera live-streaming the first few hours of Starman's voyage has died.

"If I'm brutally wrong, no one will ever know," Carroll joked.

Carroll, an adjunct in the chemistry department on Indiana University's Bloomington campus, is a member of the American Chemical Society who specializes in plastics, and has some experience with how materials degrade. When Live Science, a science news website, reached out to the American Chemical Society to ask how the Tesla roadster would fare once it left the atmosphere, Carroll volunteered to weigh in.

"I've probably speculated way beyond the data," he said of his interviews with Live Science and The Herald-Times. But then, speculation is half the fun.

Carroll, now 66, grew up with space race fever, when "every kid wanted to be an astronaut." He was 9 years old when Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. In his late teens, he watched men walk on the moon. While he finds SpaceX's stunt with the roadster delightfully absurd, he also finds it an incredibly exciting time for the future of space exploration.

"I think it's great to see how interesting space still is to people, 50 years after we went to the moon," he said.

To him, the most interesting part is finding out whether a company like SpaceX can safely take the business of space travel out of the billion-dollar range to a pursuit more accessible.

In the meantime, the image of Starman drifting through the stars -- one hand on the wheel, one arm casually resting on the carbon-fiber frame of the red roadster, blithely oblivious to any pending destruction -- is enough to put a grin on the chemist's face.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Easter Eggs

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said his Tesla Roadster was "the silliest thing" he and his SpaceX team could think of to stick aboard the Falcon Heavy rocket, but they didn't just stop with the car. Here are the other Easter eggs aboard the historic launch:

- "Starman," a dummy wearing a real SpaceX spacesuit, sits in the driver's seat. "Starman" is a nod to a David Bowie song of the same name.

- The car's speakers played "Space Oddity," another David Bowie song. "Ground control to Major Tom," anyone?

- An all-caps message reading "DON'T PANIC" is displayed on the car's dashboard. That's a nod to Douglas Adams' science fiction classic, "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," which tells travelers, "Don't panic, and carry a towel." It does not appear that Starman was given a towel.

- Sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov's iconic "Foundation" series made its way into space, contained in an Arch data crystal -- a coin-sized disk meant to last billions of years, according to a statement from the Arch Mission Foundation. This Easter egg has a few layers: "Foundation" is about humanity's expansion across the cosmos, but it's also about the fictitious Encyclopedia Galactica, which contains all the collective knowledge of humankind. As Arch's stated mission is "to permanently archive human knowledge ... (and) preserve and disseminate humanity's knowledge across time and space," it looks as though the Arch disk is a first stab at our own Encyclopedia Galactica.

- Musk stamped a message for aliens on the car's circuit board, and posted a picture of it on his Instagram. Curious extraterrestrials who understand English will read that the Tesla car was "Made on Earth by humans."

- A tiny model Tesla Roadster, complete with a tiny model Starman, sits atop the dashboard so that Starman has some company on his galactic cruise.

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