After much fanfare, Elon Musk made it clear that he does plan to launch his Tesla Roadster to Mars on the Falcon Heavy next year — but questions remained over whether the mission is allowed. Are there any major federal hurdles SpaceX has to overcome in order to launch the very first sports car into deep space?
Musk initially said he wanted to send the car to Mars orbit, which could raise concerns about planetary protection. That’s the concept of preventing contamination of worlds in our Solar System with Earth life. Honoring planetary protection is a matter of international law, as it’s mandated in the Outer Space Treaty — a 50-year-old document that dictates guidelines for what countries can and cannot do in space. And the US is ultimately responsible for US commercial space companies adhering to the treaty.
The Tesla Roadster isn’t really going to Mars, though, so SpaceX isn’t going to run afoul of international space law; instead, the car will be delivered near where Mars orbits around the Sun, about 141 million miles from Earth, and then left to travel forever through space, according to further clarification from Musk. As long as the Roadster doesn’t interfere with the Red Planet, SpaceX should be fine. “It’s a dummy payload — an exquisite dummy payload — but what it does fall down to is it’s not performing any operation in space,” Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, tells The Verge.
If SpaceX wanted the Roadster to perform a specific task — such as land on Mars or an asteroid — it would be a different story. Such a mission would fall into a weird regulatory gap that has been plaguing the US government for a while now. The US has successfully overseen the launch and licensing of commercial satellites in orbit around Earth for the last 50 years, but there’s currently no legal framework to oversee what are deemed “non-traditional” commercial space missions. These include things like sending a rover to the Moon, launching a human habitat into orbit… or sending a car to Mars.
“One of the big challenges is how does the government say yes to a lot of these new innovative private sector space activities,” Brian Weeden, a space expert and director of programming for the Secure World Foundation, tells The Verge.
The process for launching satellites has been more or less streamlined for a while. Companies that want to send up a payload have to apply for a license with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in order to use part of the radio spectrum to communicate with the satellite. And they also have to apply for a launch license with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which ensures that the mission will not cause damage to property on the ground or be a danger to the public.
But when a mission involves more than launching satellites, that’s where companies enter something of a Wild West scenario. There is no framework for overseeing a company’s actions in space; once a vehicle deploys from a rocket into orbit, that’s where federal jurisdiction ends. “The FAA’s authority is over the launch vehicle; once the payload separates, they have no authority there,” says Weeden.
That’s starting to become a problem as space companies propose more ambitious missions. The US government needs a way to ensure that companies won’t get the nation in trouble by violating the Outer Space Treaty while in space. And planetary protection is definitely a concern, as more companies talk about sending spacecraft to the Moon or Mars. The treaty states that countries should explore other worlds and “conduct exploration of them so as to avoid their harmful contamination.”