Last week, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk launched his personal luxury Tesla into deep space on top of the most powerful operational rocket in the world. The plan was to put the car into an elliptical orbit around the Sun, allowing it to make several close passes to Mars over its multi-million year lifespan.
Shortly after the launch, Musk tweeted that the car had overshot its trajectory a little bit and was instead headed to the asteroid belt. This prompted a bunch of astronerds to crunch the numbers themselves, and they found that although the car was headed to a different trajectory than originally planned, it would still be passing closer to Mars than the asteroid belt.
Not to be out done, a group of five Canadian astrophysicists published a paper on arXiv today calculating the probability that Musk’s sports car would collide with a planet in the solar system. According to their simulations, there’s approximately a six percent chance that the car will collide with Earth sometime in the next million years. Those odds aren’t great, but they’re significantly more than Venus, which has about a 2.5 percent chance of collision.
In terms of tracking and modeling the Tesla’s trajectory, the car is very similar to asteroids. Running simulations based on NASA’s HORIZONS database for tracking bodies in the solar system, the physicists found that the car’s first close pass with Earth will be in 2091 and it may come “within a lunar distance” of the Earth.
Yet the effects of gravity from these close passes with Earth also create disturbances in the car’s initial trajectory, which makes long term forecasts about the probability of a collision incredibly difficult. The physicists ran 48 simulations accounting for different variables that could alter the car’s orbital trajectory and none of these simulations resulted in the car colliding with Earth in the next 1,000 years.
When the researchers looked at collision probabilities in the next 3 million years, they found that “although there were several close encounters with Mars in our simulations, none of them resulte din a physical collision.” By contrast, Earth and Venus had a six and 2.5 percent chance of collision in the next million years, respectively. All things considered, the researchers estimate that the Tesla will last around 20 million years and that they expect “collision probabilities with the Earth to be substantial.”
There’s a pretty good chance there won’t even be humans around by the time the Tesla collides with Earth, but in the meantime you can track its progress toward its inevitable demise here.