What would happen to a Tesla in space?
It's been four years since Elon Musk launched one of his Roadsters at the sun. An aerospace engineer mulls its fate.
This story originally featured on The Drive.
In February of 2018, Elon Musk launched his personal Tesla Roadster into orbit around the sun on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket. Usually, when Musk does something like this, the justification is because Musk simply is who he is, however this time, it was also done for a useful purpose. The rocket needed a test payload, and with the American billionaire having no shortage of new Teslas at his disposal, his old Roadster, the first vehicle the company sold, was a solid candidate.
Four years have now passed since the Tesla entered a heliocentric orbit and the video feed focused on “Starman,” the space suit-adorned mannequin in the driver’s seat, went dead. That’s a long time spent in the near-complete vacuum of outer space, and as such, we were curious what’s happened to it since that fateful launch in February. To try to get an idea of what might’ve happened to the car and its unforthcoming passenger, we spoke to Dr. Anthony Waas, professor extraordinaire and chair of the aerospace engineering program at the University of Michigan. He had… well, he had a few concerns about how it’s doing.
“There are four main hazards in space,” Dr. Waas sold us. “There is temperature… the effects of gravity and no gravity… there is radiation, and then there is pressure,” he said, also throwing in solar winds for good measure. All of these things will have different effects on the materials the car is made from, and it of course depends on how the Tesla Roadster was constructed, too. What Dr. Waas seemed most concerned about was thermal cycling, and how the Roadster, which is made from a slew of different materials, might react to it. “You get huge temperature variations in space. You can have anything from -101 [degrees] to 219 [degrees] Celsius,” he explained. These changes in temperature make the car’s parts expand and contract much more than they would on earth, as automobiles are not usually subject to temperature variations of 320 degrees Celsius (576 degrees Fahrenheit). “Depending on how they were attached,” he continued, “the joints can come loose.”
The Tesla Roadster uses a modified Lotus Elise chassis, which is mostly aluminum although it has a carbon fiber body. It’s unclear how the body is fixed to the chassis, however it very likely uses fasteners as opposed to an adhesive. These fasteners might very well come loose after an extended period of time or break under any repeated stress they’re put under. Keep in mind, these fluctuations are constant in outer space, and even something like the resin that binds the carbon fiber together will expand and contract at a different rate than the fiber itself. Dr. Waas was also careful to note that not all carbon fiber is the same. There are different ways to arrange the fiber, different resins, and different methods of combining the two. “The polymer in the [Boeing] 787… is different than the polymer in the Airbus A350, which is also carbon fiber airplane,” he explained. “So it will be different.”
There seemed to be a lot of factors contributing to how pressure—or the complete lack thereof—might affect the various parts of the car. However we then focused on a few specific components that might be affected by the massive temperature fluctuations, and the effect of solar radiation. One of them is paint.
While noting that automotive paint technology is very advanced, Dr. Waas made the informed assumption that automotive paint is not tested to the aforementioned range of temperatures seen in the vacuum of space. As a result, the fluctuations of hot and cold over time may have led to the paint cracking or peeling off entirely. “That could lead to certainly cracking of the paint, and certainly peeling off,” he told me. Interestingly, if this has happened, the tiny flakes of paint are likely just floating around the car in a debris field, as opposed to flying off into space. “If it peels off, it will just fly with the vehicle, because there’s no separation forces as such.”
It’s unclear if the car’s battery pack is still fixed to the vehicle, although seeing as it was launched into space a payload test, we think it’s possible. If it is out there with the car, it may be in a variety of conditions depending on which side is exposed to the sun’s temperature, Dr. Waas says. It’s essentially an unknown, but what is more clear is that much of the rubber on the car like the tires, weatherstripping, etc is probably dry rotted, and perhaps floating around in the same debris field as the paint. “[Rubber] can withstand pretty high temperatures,” Dr. Waas said, but over time it will likely crack and disintegrate. “It’s also thermally cycled… rubber may actually crack. It may dry up, become brittle, and it may tend to crack away.” He also indicated the car’s leather interior would likely be in for similar treatment.
As far as our silent friend Starman goes, he’s probably fine. Dr. Waas notes that he is, after all, in a spacesuit. It might be gradually deteriorating over time from the radiation, however it’s designed to withstand extreme changes in temperature and resist other detrimental forces in space.
Any serious damage to the car, Dr. Wass concluded, would be done by meteorites. As unlikely as it might sound, any part of the car that gets disturbed by an impact of varying force might sustain serious damage in such a taxing environment. How many times the car has been hit by meteorites or indeed if it has been hit at all is speculative, though. It could be nicked up, it could be Swiss cheese, or it could be perfectly fine.
The Roadster has only been out there for four years. After 10 or 20 years? It’s a question that hasn’t been widely pondered, believe it or not. “Well nobody has really thought about this,” the professor told me, clearly amused. “But now that you have asked me this question, his car could be a fantastic asset to test.” If the car or even just part of it could be retrieved and brought back to earth, Waas explained, it could be a valuable resource in exploring how these materials can withstand the conditions in outer space. Everything from the rubber tires to the battery might be valuable to examine.
This is not impossible as Musk’s Tesla is in a known orbit around the sun between the Earth and Mars, sometimes rather close to the Earth. It would logistically be very difficult, of course, but as is typical with activities in outer space, it’s all very simple on paper. In reality, it’s likely not worth attempting to retrieve it, although saving Starman is a nice thought. Maybe bring him down and give him a friend. Send them back up there after a little party. Just an idea.
Ultimately, the extent of the damage is unknown, however it definitely seems like a fair amount is possible. The rubber, particularly the tires are likely in bad shape. The paint could be worse for wear, too. Is the Roadster totally unrecognizable? I would say that’s unlikely based on what the professor told me, but that being said, parts that have been thermally cycled may be damaged, loose, or floating around the car. Starman is probably faring better though. Always a silver lining.
As Dr. Waas indicates, it would indeed be interesting to attempt to retrieve the vehicle to really find out. That, or figure out a way to get the onboard cameras powered up again, and switched back on. Neither are very likely, but boy do we want to see the car now. Should’ve added some solar panels to keep the livestream going.