When SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket lifts off the pad at Kennedy Space Center's Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A), it will become the most powerful rocket currently flying. The launch spectacle will feature more than 5 million pounds of thrust erupting into LC-39A—the first time that kind of power has been deployed since the last space shuttle flight, STS-135, which saw the Atlantis orbiter lift off from the same site on July 8, 2011.
If everything goes according to plan, Falcon Heavy's maiden flight should also set the record for fastest a car has ever traveled. Elon Musk has decided to send his Tesla into space.
As Harvard-Smithsonian astrophysicist and spaceflight expert Jonathan McDowell tells Popular Mechanics, measuring speed in space gets a little wonky, as velocity can only be measured relative to another object. Relative to our planet, though, Elon Musk's red Roadster is going to be flying at tens of thousands of miles per hour.
"At separation, the Roadster will be going between 11.5 and 11.8 km/s relative to Earth," McDowell says in an email. "This is 25,700 to 26,400 mph, so say about 26,000 mph give or take. It will slow down as it goes 'uphill' and departs the Earth-Moon system at about 7,400 to 9,500 mph—relative to the Earth."
The current record for fastest street-legal car is 277.9 mph, set by the Koenigsegg Agera RS. Rocket cars accelerating over salt flats and dry lake beds can get going a good bit faster. The Thrust SSC (supersonic car) currently holds the world record at 763 mph. Another contender hopes to break that record in the next few years. The Bloodhound SSC group wants to take on a 1,000-mph speed run in South Africa by 2020.
Musk's Tesla Roadster will be propelled by rocket engines as well—27 of them—and should have no trouble crushing these previous, land-based records. The goal of the Falcon Heavy flight is to put the Roadster into a heliocentric orbit near that of Mars, although given the , the car won't actually get that close to the planet. "My models (based on very limited input data) suggest that it will miss Mars by 50 million miles," McDowell says.
Considering the car is not moving under its own power—but rather the power of a super-heavy-lift rocket—the speed record might not get a spot in the Guiness book. Still, a car has never traveled as fast as Musk's will next week, and unless another eccentric billionaire decides to launch his personal vehicle into space, it's possible a car never will again.