Saturday 21 July 2018

Musk sends Mars-bound 'Starman' into orbit to start 320 million-kilometre trip

Liff-off for SpaceX Falcon Heavy. Inset: Elon Musk
Liff-off for SpaceX Falcon Heavy. Inset: Elon Musk

Harriet Alexander and Helena Horton

A cherry-red Tesla car was launched into space by Elon Musk, the tech entrepreneur, yesterday with David Bowie's 'Life On Mars' playing on repeat.

An estimated half-a-million people gathered in Florida to watch the launch - the culmination of a plan five years in the making.

Elon Musk. Photo: Reuters
Elon Musk. Photo: Reuters

Mr Musk used a super rocket - the Falcon Heavy vehicle - to send the car into an eliptical orbit around the Sun that will take it past Mars, deploying technology with twice the launching power of any existing rocket, and double that of the Saturn V, which launched the Apollo lunar missions.

Mr Musk explained the Roadster "will be in deep space for a billion years or so, if it doesn't blow up on ascent". His fears were unrealised, however, and the rocket successfully took off at 3.45pm local time.

Earlier this week, in a YouTube video to promote the launch, Bowie's song played as the Falcon Heavy was shown on the launch pad. The animation showed that during the launch, Falcon Heavy's three first-stage boosters ignite, powering up the rocket toward space. The two side boosters separate and fall away, returning to Earth to land on two SpaceX landing pads at Cape Canaveral air force station.

The centre core separates later and lands in the Atlantic on SpaceX's drone ship, named Of Course I Still Love You.

The upper stage continues on, with the nose cone's protective fairing separating to reveal the Roadster and a dummy, which Mr Musk calls Starman, sitting in the driver's seat. The car will take at least six months to travel the 320 million kilometres to Mars.

The South African-born entrepreneur has promised "epic views" of space from cameras strapped to the vehicle as it is thrown into a heliocentric orbit called Trans-Mars injection, which could in future be the easiest way to move objects between Earth and the red planet.

If the maiden voyage is successful, it raises interesting possibilities for future innovation, including larger US satellites and also the realisation of Mr Musk's dream to launch hundreds of satellites into space in order to give broadband internet to the developing world.

It also means space exploration could be hugely enhanced, with larger robots sent to Mars. Some could even visit outer planets such as Jupiter and Saturn.

Nasa is also developing a super-rocket, but Mr Musk's, if successful, is much cheaper. Their Space Launch System is said to cost $1bn (€807m) per flight, while the entrepreneur claims his Falcon Heavy will cost just $90 million (€73m) per flight.

Casey Dreier, the director of space policy at the Planetary Society, said: "The question is will it be reliable enough for the government and others to put in their most valuable assets, to be worth the reduced cost?"

© Daily Telegraph, London

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