IN SPACE - FEBRUARY 8: In this handout photo provided by SpaceX, a Tesla roadster launched from the ...

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Elon Musk’s Mars Roadster comments reveal a big SpaceX problem

The Tesla Roadster is on a tour of the Solar System. But did it really orbit Mars?

Handout/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster is touring the Solar System, but orbiting Mars? Not quite.

On Saturday, the SpaceX CEO took to Twitter to declare that his electric car was “currently orbiting Mars.” The only problem, as Smithsonian astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell pointed out, is that it’s actually orbiting the Sun.

“[It] occasionally passes the orbit of Mars,” McDowell wrote. “Not the same thing.”

With nearly 3,000 likes at the time of writing, the post received both criticism and praise.

It may seem like nitpicking to some, but McDowell tells Inverse that it’s a significant distinction.

“Since Mars is such a big part of Elon’s, and SpaceX’s, agenda, it’s problematic that he systematically seems to elide this difference — making it seem that SpaceX is further along in its Mars ambitions than it really is,” he says.

Indeed, as Musk aims to one day send humans to Mars and build a city by 2050, his Falcon Heavy declaration could lead to confusion.

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Musk’s Tesla Roadster touring the Solar System.Handout/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Musk’s red Roadster: The trip around the Sun

On February 6, 2018, SpaceX launched its Falcon Heavy for the first time. With a thrust of over 5 million pounds at liftoff, it was hailed as the world’s most powerful operational rocket on debut.

SpaceX used Musk’s Roadster as a dummy payload to test the rocket's capabilities. It featured an array of references to science fiction and pop culture, and carried a dummy in the front seat kitted out in a SpaceX spacesuit.

It was possibly the coolest road trip of all time — but the rocket didn’t send the car into an orbit around Mars. McDowell says it’s important to be clear about what SpaceX achieved.

“When these misstatements sink into the public consciousness, they tend to get repeated uncritically in poorly-researched news stories and end up contaminating the historical record,” McDowell says.

SpaceX is currently developing the Starship, a fully-reusable rocket that can send up to 100 tons or 100 people into space at a time. SpaceX designed it to send the first humans to Mars — but if news reports claim that Musk already sent his car on an orbit around Mars, it could lead to confusion around SpaceX’s project.

But McDowell did receive his share of criticism for the post. One Twitter user wrote to the astrophysicist: “Who died and made you the orbital police?”

“Johannes Kepler,” McDowell replied, a reference to the 17th-century astronomer that set out three laws of planetary motion.

Sun or Mars, the car has had an impressive trip — in February 2021 it completed its second orbit.

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