Venus Could Have Supported Life for Billions of Years

In 1978, NASA’s Pioneer Venus (aka. Pioneer 12) mission reached Venus (“Earth’s Sister”) and found indications that Venus may have once had oceans on its surface. Since then, several missions have been sent to Venus and gathered data on its surface and atmosphere. From this, a picture has emerged of how Venus made the transition from being an “Earth-like” planet to the hot and hellish place it is today.

It all started about 700 million years ago when a massive resurfacing event triggered a runaway Greenhouse Effect that caused Venus’s atmosphere to become incredibly dense and hot. This means that for 2 to 3 billion years after Venus formed, the planet could have maintained a habitable environment. According to a recent study, that would have been long enough for life to have emerged on “Earth’s Sister”.

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Theory proposes that Venus could have been habitable, but a large ocean slowed down its rotation, killing it

There’s no sense in sugar-coating it – Venus is a hellish place! It is the hottest planet in the Solar System, with atmospheric temperatures that are hot enough to melt lead. The air is also a toxic plume, composed predominantly of carbon dioxide and sulfuric acid rain clouds. And yet, scientists theorize that Venus was once a much different place, with a cooler atmosphere and liquid oceans on its surface.

Unfortunately, this all changed billions of years ago as Venus experienced a runaway greenhouse effect, changing the landscape into the hellish world we know today. According to a NASA-supported study by an international team of scientists, it may have actually been the presence of this ocean that caused Venus to experience this transition in the first place.

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New Ring of Dust Discovered in the Inner Solar System

An illustration of the dust rings around the Sun. Image Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Mary Pat Hrybyk-Keith

Discovering new things in space is a regular occurrence. Astronomers keep finding more distant objects in the outer reaches of the Solar System. Worlds like ‘The Goblin,’ ‘FarOut,’ and ‘FarFarOut‘ are stretching the limits of what our Solar System actually is.

But finding new things in the inner Solar System is rare.

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Giant Streak Structure Found in Venus’ Cloudtops

A team of researchers in Japan has discovered a gigantic streak structure in the cloud tops of Venus. The discovery is based on observations of Venus by the Japanese spacecraft Akatsuki. The findings were published in January 9th in the journal Nature Communications.

Venus is unlike any other planet in the Solar System. The entire planet is shrouded in thick clouds of sulfuric acid between altitudes of 45 km to 70 km. This thick shroud has prevented scientists from studying Earth’s so-called “sister planet” in detail. But Japanese researchers are making progress.

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How Science Journalism Helped Me Become a Better Sci-Fi Writer

Hello all. I hope our readers don’t mind that I’m taking a bit of a diversion here today to engage in a little shameless self-promotion. Basically, I wanted to talk about my recently-published novel – The Jovian Manifesto. This book is the sequel to The Cronian Incident, which was published last year (and was a little  shamelessly promoted at the time).

However, I also wanted to take this opportunity to talk about hard science fiction and how writing for a science publication helped me grow as a writer. By definition, hard sci-fi refers to stories where scientific accuracy is emphasized. This essentially means that the technology in the story conforms to established science and/or what is believed to be feasible in the future.

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NASA Has Awarded a Contract to Study Flying Drones on Venus

In the coming decades, NASA and other space agencies hope to mount some ambitious missions to other planets in our Solar System. In addition to studying Mars and the outer Solar System in greater detail, NASA intends to send a mission to Venus to learn more about the planet’s past. This will include studying Venus’ upper atmosphere to determine if the planet once had liquid water (and maybe even life) on its surface.

In order to tackle this daunting challenge, NASA recently partnered with Black Swift Technologies – a Boulder-based company specializing in unmanned aerial systems (UAS) – to build a drone that could survive in Venus’ upper atmosphere. This will be no easy task, but if their designs should prove equal to the task, NASA will be awarding the company a lucrative contract for a Venus aerial drone.

In recent years, NASA has taken a renewed interest in Venus, thanks to climate models that have indicated that it (much like Mars) may have also had liquid water on its surface at one time. This would have likely consisted of a shallow ocean that covered much of the planet’s surface roughly 2 billion years ago, before the planet suffered a runaway Greenhouse Effect that left it the hot and hellish world it is today.

Artist’s impression of the surface of Venus, showing its lightning storms and a volcano in the distance. Credit and ©: European Space Agency/J. Whatmore

In addition, a recent study – which included scientists from NASA’s Ames Research Center and Jet Propulsion Laboratory – indicated that there could be microbial life in Venus’ cloud tops. As such, there is considerable motivation to send aerial platforms to Venus that would be capable of studying Venus’ cloud tops and determining if there are any traces of organic life or indications of the planet’s past surface water there.

As Jack Elston, the co-founded of Black Swift Technologies, explained in an interview with the Daily Camera:

“They’re looking for vehicles to explore just above the cloud layer. The pressure and temperatures are similar to what you’d find on Earth, so it could be a good environment for looking for evidence of life. The winds in the upper atmosphere of Venus are incredibly strong, which creates design challenge.”

To meet this challenge, the company intends to create a drone that will use these strong winds to keep the craft aloft while reducing the amount of electricity it needs. So far, NASA has awarded an initial six-month contract to the company to design a drone and provided specifications on what it needs. This contract included a $125,000 grant by the federal governments’ Small Business Innovation Research program.

This program aims to encourage “domestic small businesses to engage in Federal Research/Research and Development (R/R&D) that has the potential for commercialization.” The company hopes to use some of this grant money to take on more staff and build a drone that NASA would be confident about sending int Venus’ upper atmosphere, where conditions are particularly challenging.

Aircraft like the Venus Atmospheric Maneuverable Platform (VAMP) could explore the cloud tops of Venus for possible signs of life. Credit: Northrop Grumman Corp.

As Elston explained to Universe Today via email, these challenges represent an opportunity for innovation:

“Our project centers around a unique aircraft and method for harvesting energy from Venus’s upper atmosphere that doesn’t require additional sources of energy for propulsion.  Our experience working on unmanned aircraft systems that interact with severe convective storms on Earth will hopefully provide a valuable contribution to the ongoing discussion for how best to explore this turbulent environment. Additionally, the work we do will help inform better designs of our own aircraft and should lead to longer observation times and more robust aircraft to observe everything from volcanic plumes to hurricanes.”

At the end of the six month period, Black Swift will present its concept to NASA for approval. “If they like what we’ve come up with, they’ll fund another two-year project to build prototypes,” said Elston. “That second-phase contract is expected to be worth $750,000.”

This is not the first time that Black Swift has partnered with NASA to created unmanned aerial vehicles to study harsh environments. Last year, the company was awarded a second phase contract worth $875,000 to build a drone that could monitor the temperature, gas levels, winds and pressure levels inside the volcanoes of Costa Rica. After a series of test flights, the drone is expected to be deployed to Hawaii, where it will study the geothermal activity occurring there.

The Russian Academy of Sciences’ Space Research Institute (IKI) Venera-D mission concept includes a Venus orbiter that would operate for up to three years, and a lander designed to survive the incredibly harsh conditions a spacecraft would encounter on Venus’ surface for a few hours. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

If BlackSwift’s concept for a Venus drone makes the cut, their aerial drone will join other mission concepts like the DAVINCI spacecraft, the Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy (VERITAS) spacecraft, the Venus Atmospheric Maneuverable Platform (VAMP), or Russia’s Venera-D mission – which is currently scheduled to explore Venus during the late 2020s.

A number of other concepts are being investigated for exploring Venus’ surface to learn more about its geological history. These include a “Steampunk” (i.e. analog) rover that would rely on no electronic parts,  or a vehicle that uses a Stored-Chemical Energy and Power System (SCEPS) – aka. a Sterling engine – to conduct in-situ exploration.

All of these missions aim to reach Venus and brave its harsh conditions in order to determine whether or not “Earth’s Sister Planet” was once a more habitable planet, and how it evolved over time to become the hot and hellish place it is today.

Further Reading: The Drive, Daily Camera

Jupiter and Venus Change Earth’s Orbit Every 405,000 Years

JunoCam took this image during its eleventh close flyby of Jupiter on February 7, 2018. Image credit: NASA / JPL / SwRI / MSSS / David Marriott.

It is a well-known fact among Earth scientists that our planet periodically undergoes major changes in its climate. Over the course of the past 200 million years, our planet has experienced four major geological periods (the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous and Cenozoic) and one major ice age (the Pliocene-Quaternary glaciation), all of which had a drastic impact on plant and animal life, as well as effecting the course of species evolution.

For decades, geologists have also understood that these changes are due in part to gradual shifts in the Earth’s orbit, which are caused by Venus and Jupiter, and repeat regularly every 405,000 years. But it was not until recently that a team of geologists and Earth scientists unearthed the first evidence of these changes – sediments and rock core samples that provide a geological record of how and when these changes took place.

The study which describes their findings, titled “Empirical evidence for stability of the 405-kiloyear Jupiter–Venus eccentricity cycle over hundreds of millions of years”, recently appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA. The study was led by Dennis V. Bent, a, a Board of Governors professor from Rutgers University–New Brunswick, and included members from the Lamont–Doherty Earth Observatory, the Berkeley Geochronology Center, the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona, and multiple universities.

Professor Dennis Kent with part of a 1,700-foot-long rock core obtained from Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. Credit: Nick Romanenko/Rutgers University

As noted, the idea that Earth experiences periodic changes in its climate (which are related to changes in its orbit) has been understood for almost a century. These changes consist of Milankovitch Cycles, which consist of a 100,000-year cycle in the eccentricity of Earth’s orbit, a 41,000-year cycle in the tilt of Earth’s axis relative to its orbital plane,  and a 21,000-year cycle caused by changes in the planet’s axis.

Combined with the 405,000-year swing, which is the result of Venus and Jupiter’s gravitational influence, these shifts cause changes in how much solar energy reaches parts of our planet, which in turn influences Earth’s climate. Based on fossil records, these cycles are also known to have had a profound impact on life on Earth, which likely had an effect on the course of species of evolution. As Prof. Bent explained in a Rutgers Today press release:

“The climate cycles are directly related to how Earth orbits the sun and slight variations in sunlight reaching Earth lead to climate and ecological changes. The Earth’s orbit changes from close to perfectly circular to about 5 percent elongated especially every 405,000 years.”

For the sake of their study, Prof. Kent and his colleagues obtained sediment samples from the Newark basin, a prehistoric lake that spanned most of New Jersey, and a core rock sample from the Chinle Formation in Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. This core rock measured about 518 meters (1700 feet) long, 6.35 cm (2.5 inches) in diameter, and was dated to the Triassic Period – ca. 202 to 253 million years ago.

Within ancient rocks in Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park, scientists have identified signs of a regular variation in Earth’s orbit that influences climate. Credit: Kevin Krajick/Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

The team then linked reversals in Earth’s magnetic field – where the north and south pole shift – to sediments with and without zircons (minerals with uranium that allow for radioactive dating) as well as to climate cycles in the geological record. What these showed was that the 405,000-years cycle is the most regular astronomical pattern linked to Earth’s annual orbit around the Sun.

The results further indicated that the cycle been stable for hundreds of millions of years and is still active today. As Prof. Kent explained, this constitutes the first verifiable evidence that celestial mechanics have played a historic role in natural shifts in Earth’s climate. As Prof. Kent indicated:

“It’s an astonishing result because this long cycle, which had been predicted from planetary motions through about 50 million years ago, has been confirmed through at least 215 million years ago. Scientists can now link changes in the climate, environment, dinosaurs, mammals and fossils around the world to this 405,000-year cycle in a very precise way.”

Previously, astronomers were able to calculate this cycle reliably back to around 50 million years, but found that the problem became too complex prior to this because too many shifting motions came into play. “There are other, shorter, orbital cycles, but when you look into the past, it’s very difficult to know which one you’re dealing with at any one time, because they change over time,” said Prof. Kent. “The beauty of this one is that it stands alone. It doesn’t change. All the other ones move over it.”

The super-continent Pangaea during the Permian period (300 – 250 million years ago). Credit: NAU Geology/Ron Blakey

In addition, scientists were unable to obtain accurate dates as to when Earth’s magnetic field reversed for 30 million years of the Late Triassic – between ca. 201.3 and 237 million years ago. This was a crucial period for the evolution of terrestrial life because it was when the Supercontinent of Pangaea broke up, and also when the dinosaurs and mammals first appeared.

This break-up led to the formation of the Atlantic Ocean as the continents drifted apart and coincided with a mass extinction event by the end of the period that effected the dinosaurs. With this new evidence, geologists, paleontologists and Earth scientists will be able to develop very precise timelines and accurately categorize fossil evidence dated to this period, which show differences and similarities over wide-ranging areas.

This research, and the ability to create accurate geological and climatological timelines that go back over 200 million years, is sure to have drastic implications. Not only will climate studies benefit from it, but also our understanding of how life, and even how our Solar System, evolved. What emerges from this could include a better understanding of how life could emerge in other star systems.
After all, if our search for extra-solar life life comes down to what we know about life on Earth, knowing more about how it evolved here will better the odds of finding it out there.

Could There Be Life in the Cloudtops of Venus?

In the search for life beyond Earth, scientists have turned up some very interesting possibilities and clues. On Mars, there are currently eight functioning robotic missions on the surface of or in orbit investigating the possibility of past (and possibly present) microbial life. Multiple missions are also being planned to explore moons like Titan, Europa, and Enceladus for signs of methanogenic or extreme life.

But what about Earth’s closest neighboring planet, Venus? While conditions on its surface are far too hostile for life as we know it there are those who think it could exist in its atmosphere. In a new study, a team of international researchers addressed the possibility that microbial life could be found in Venus’ cloud tops. This study could answer an enduring mystery about Venus’ atmosphere and lead to future missions to Earth’s “Sister Planet”.

The study, titled “Venus’ Spectral Signatures and the Potential for Life in the Clouds“, recently appeared in the journal Astrobiology. The study was led by Sanjay Limaye of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Space Science and Engineering Center and included members from NASA’s Ames Research Center, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California State Polytechnic University, the Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeosciences, and the University of Zielona Góra.

Artist’s impression of the surface of Venus, showing its lightning storms and a volcano in the distance. Credit and ©: European Space Agency/J. Whatmore

For the sake of their study, the team considered the presence of UV contrasts in Venus’ upper atmosphere. These dark patches have been a mystery since they were first observered nearly a century ago by ground-based telescopes.  Since then, scientists have learned that they are made up of concentrated sulfuric acid and other unknown light-absorbing particles, which the team argues could be microbial life.

As Limaye indicated in a recent University of Wisconsin-Madison press statement:

“Venus shows some episodic dark, sulfuric rich patches, with contrasts up to 30 – 40 percent in the ultraviolet, and muted in longer wavelengths. These patches persist for days, changing their shape and contrasts continuously and appear to be scale dependent.”

To illustrate the possibility that these streaks are the result of microbial life, the team considered whether or not extreme bacteria could survive in Venus’ cloud tops. For instance, the lower cloud tops of Venus (47.5 to 50.5 km above the surface) are known to have moderate temperature conditions (~60 °C; 140 °F) and pressure conditions that are similar to that of Earth at sea level (101.325 kPa).

This is far more hospitable than conditions on the surface, where temperatures reach 737 K (462 C; 860 F) and atmospheric pressure is 9200 kPa (92 times that of Earth at sea level). In addition, they considered how on Earth, bacteria has been found at altitudes as high as 41 km (25 mi). On top of that, there are many cases where extreme bacteria here on Earth that could survive in an acidic environment.

A composite image of the planet Venus as seen by the Japanese probe Akatsuki. The clouds of Venus could have environmental conditions conducive to microbial life. Credit: JAXA/Institute of Space and Astronautical Science

As Rakesh Mogul, a professor of biological chemistry at California State Polytechnic University and a co-author on the study, indicated, “On Earth, we know that life can thrive in very acidic conditions, can feed on carbon dioxide, and produce sulfuric acid.” This is consistent with the presence of micron-sized sulfuric acid aerosols in Venus upper atmosphere, which could be a metabolic by-product.

In addition, the team also noted that according to some models, Venus had a habitable climate with liquid water on its surface for as long as two billion years – which is much longer than what is believed to have occurred on Mars. In short, they speculate that life could have evolved on the surface of Venus and been swept up into the atmosphere, where it survived as the planet experienced its runaway greenhouse effect.

This study expands on a proposal originally made by Harold Morowitz and famed astronomer Carl Sagan in 1967 and which was investigated by a series of probes sent to Venus between 1962 and 1978. While these missions indicated that surface conditions on Venus ruled out the possibility of life, they also noted that conditions in the lower and middle portions of Venus’ atmosphere – 40 to 60 km (25 – 27 mi) altitude – did not preclude the possibility of microbial life.

For years, Limaye has been revisiting the idea of exploring Venus’ atmosphere for signs of life. The inspiration came in part from a chance meeting at a teachers workshop with Grzegorz Slowik – from the University of Zielona Góra in Poland and a co-author on the study – who told him of how bacteria on Earth have light-absorbing properties similar to the particles that make up the dark patches observed in Venus’ clouds.

Aircraft like the Venus Atmospheric Maneuverable Platform (VAMP) could explore the cloud tops of Venus for possible signs of life. Credit: Northrop Grumman Corp

While no probe that has sampled Venus’ atmosphere has been capable of distinguishing between organic and inorganic particles, the ones that make up Venus’ dark patches do have comparable dimensions to some bacteria on Earth. According to Limaye and Mogul, these patches could therefore be similar to algae blooms on Earth, consisting of bacteria that metabolizes the carbon dioxide in Venus’ atmosphere and produces sulfuric acid aerosols.

In the coming years, Venus’ atmosphere could be explored for signs of microbial life by a lighter than air aircraft. One possibility is the Venus Aerial Mobil Platform (VAMP), a concept currently being researched by Northrop Grumman (shown above). Much like lighter-than-air concepts being developed to explore Titan, this vehicle would float and fly around in Venus’ atmosphere and search the cloud tops for biosignatures.

Another possibility is NASA’s possible participation in the Russian Venera-D mission, which is currently scheduled to explore Venus during the late 2020s. This mission would consist of a Russian orbiter and lander to explore Venus’ atmosphere and surface while NASA would contribute a surface station and maneuverable aerial platform.

Another mystery that such a mission could explore, which has a direct bearing on whether or not life may still exist on Venus, is when Venus’ liquid water evaporated. In the last billion years or so, the extensive lava flows that cover the surface have either destroyed or covered up evidence of the planet’s early history. By sampling Venus’ clouds, scientists could determine when all of the planet’s liquid water disappeared, triggering the runaway greenhouse effect that turned it into a hellish landscape.

NASA is currently investigating other concepts to explore Venus’ hostile surface and atmosphere, including an analog robot and a lander that would use a Sterling engine to turn Venus’ atmosphere into a source of power. And with enough time and resources, we might even begin contemplating building floating cities in Venus atmosphere, complete with research facilities.

Further Reading: Space Science and Engineering Center, Astrobiology

What are the Chances Musk’s Space Tesla is Going to Crash Into Venus or Earth?

On February 6th, 2018, SpaceX successfully launched its Falcon Heavy rocket into orbit. This was a momentous occasion for the private aerospace company and represented a major breakthrough for spaceflight. Not only is the Falcon Heavy the most powerful rocket currently in service, it is also the first heavy launch vehicle that relies on reusable boosters (two of which were successfully retrieved after the launch).

Equally interesting was the rocket’s cargo, which consisted of Musk’s cherry-red Tesla Roadster with a spacesuit in the driver’s seat. According to Musk, this vehicle and its “pilot” (Starman), will eventually achieve a Hohmann Transfer Orbit with Mars and remain there for up to a billion years. However, according to a new study, there’s a small chance that the Roadster will collide with Venus or Earth instead in a few eons.

The study which raises this possibility recently appeared online under the title “The random walk of cars and their collision probabilities with planets.” The study was conducted by Hanno Rein, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto; Daniel Tamayo, a postdoctoral fellow with the Center for Planetary Sciences (CPS) and the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics (CITA); and David Vokrouhlick of the Institute of Astronomy at Charles University in Prague.

Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster being loaded aboard the Falcon Heavy’s payload capsule. Credit: SpaceX

As we indicated in a previous post, Musk’s original flight plan has the potential to place the Roadster into a stable orbit around Mars… after a fashion. According to Max Fagin, an aerospace engineer from Colorado and a space camp alumni, the Roadster will get close enough to Mars to establish an orbit by October of 2018. However, this orbit would not rule out close encounters with Earth over the course of the next few million years.

For the sake of their study, Rein and his colleagues considered how such close encounters might alter the Roadster’s orbit in that time. Using data from NASA’s HORIZONS interface to determine the initial positions of all Solar planets and the Roadster, the team calculated the likelihood of future close encounters between the vehicle and the terrestrial planets, and how likely a resulting collision would be.

As they indicated, the Roadster bears some similarities to Near-Earth Asteroids (NEAs) and ejecta from the Earth-Moon system. In short, NEAs permeate the inner Solar System, regularly crossing the orbits of terrestrial planets and experiencing close encounters with them (resulting in the occasional collision). In addition, ejecta from the Earth and Moon also experience close encounters with the terrestrial planets and collide with them.

However, the Tesla Roadster is unique in two key respects: For one, it originated from Earth rather than being pulled from the Asteroid Belt into the inner Solar System by strong resonances. Second, it had a higher ejection velocity when it left Earth, which tends to result in fewer impacts. “Given the peculiar initial conditions and even stranger object, it therefore remains an interesting question to probe its dynamics and eventual fate,” they claim.

The Falcon Heavy Rocket being fired up at launch site LC-39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Image: SpaceX
The Falcon Heavy Rocket being fired up at launch site LC-39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: SpaceX

Another challenge was how the probability of an impact will change drastically over time. While the chance of a collision can be ruled out in the short run (i.e. the next few years), the Roadster’s chaotic orbit is difficult to predict over the course of subsequent close encounters. As such, the team performed a statistical calculation to see how the orbit and velocity of the Roadster would change over time. As they state in their study:

“Given that the Tesla was launched from Earth, the two objects have intersecting orbits and repeatedly undergo close encounters. The bodies reach the same orbital longitude on their synodic timescale of ~2.8 yrs.”

They began by considering how the Roadster’s orbit would evolve over the course of its next 48 orbits, which would encompass the next 1000 years. They then expanded the analysis to consider long-term evolution, which encompassed 240 orbits over the course of the next 3.5 million years. What they found was that on a million-year timescale, the orbit of the Roadster remains in a region dominated by close encounters with Earth.

However, over time, their simulations show that the Roadster will experience changes in eccentricity due to resonant and secular effects. This will result in interactions more frequent interactions between the Roadster and Venus over time, and close encounters with Mars becoming possible. Over long enough timescales, the team even anticipates that interactions with Mercury’s orbit will be possible (though unlikely).

Don't Panic StarMan, Don't Panic. Credit: SpaceX
Don’t Panic StarMan, Don’t Panic. Credit: SpaceX

In the end, their simulations revealed that over the course of a million years and beyond, the probability of a collision with a terrestrial planet is unlikely, but not impossible. And while the odds are slim, they favor an eventual collision with Earth. Or as they put it:

“Although there were several close encounters with Mars in our simulations, none of them resulted in a physical collision. We find that there is a ~6% chance that the Tesla will collide with Earth and a ~2.5% chance that it will collide with Venus within the next 1 Myr. The collision rate goes down slightly with time. After 3 Myr the probability of a collision with Earth is ~11%. We observed only one collision with the Sun within 3 Myr.”

Given the Musk hoped that his Roadster would remain in orbit of Mars for one billion years, and that aliens might eventually find it, the prospect of it colliding with Earth or Venus is a bit of a letdown. Why bother sending such a unique payload into space if it’s just going to come back? Still, the odds that it will be drifting through space for millions of years remains a distinct possibility.

And if there are any worries that the Roadster will pose a threat to future missions or Earth itself, consider the message Starman was looking at during his ascent into space – Don’t Panic! Assuming humanity is even alive eons from now, the far greater danger will be that such an antique will burn up in our atmosphere. After millions of years, Starman is sure to be a big celebrity!

Further Reading: arXiv