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Falcon Heavy launch
An artist’s conception shows the launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket. (SpaceX via YouTube)

Update: After a bit of back and forth, SpaceX is confirming that the Roadster to Mars is a real payload, and that it intends to comply with all launch licensing regulations.

Previously: Billionaire CEO Elon Musk tweeted out the idea of putting a cherry-red Tesla Roadster on SpaceX’s first Falcon Heavy rocket and sending it toward Mars, sparking lots of questions in the process.

The first question has to be: Is he serious?

So far, it sounds as if he might be. SpaceX folks are signaling that the plan is “legit,” and Musk’s replies to Twitter fans were also of a confirmatory nature. Here’s the thread:

One thing’s for sure: Such a flight plan would fit Musk’s criterion for sending the “silliest thing we can imagine” on the first launch of a new type of rocket. It’d certainly up the ante for SpaceX’s first Dragon flight, which flew a Monty Pythonesque giant wheel of cheese to space and back.

The Falcon Heavy, which uses three core boosters and 27 Merlin engines, would rank as the world’s most powerful operational rocket when it enters service. But in July, Musk said “there’s a real good chance that that vehicle does not make it to orbit” on its maiden launch from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“There’s a lot that could go wrong,” he said.

For that reason, SpaceX is passing up the chance to put a customer payload on the initial launch, which leaves lots of room for that red Roadster.

Although Musk has a freer hand that he would if he were launching someone else’s hardware, SpaceX would still have to get regulatory approval for Falcon Heavy’s launch. And the regulatory environment is  more complicated for launching a private payload out of Earth orbit.

Moon Express, for example, sought and got a payload review from U.S. government agencies last year for its intended mission to put a lander on the lunar surface.

At the time, the Federal Aviation Administration said such a review was required to make sure launching the payload “does not jeopardize public health and safety, safety of property, U.S. national security or foreign policy interests, or international obligations of the United States.”

Approval came two and a half months after Moon Express submitted its application. In giving its OK, the FAA emphasized that this was a one-time deal, and that future “non-traditional missions” would have to be handled on a case-by-case basis.

Sending a Roadster to Mars would seem to qualify as a non-traditional mission. So if Musk is serious, it sounds as if SpaceX should send in its application for putting a sports car in space, if it hasn’t done so already.

Update: SpaceX is aware of the payload review requirement and, as stated up top, will comply with launch licensing requirements.

Also, after talking with Musk, “Bad Astronomer” Phil Plait explains that the Falcon Heavy’s intended trajectory would be an eccentric orbit around the sun that loops between Earth’s and Mars’ orbital distances.

The original version of this report was published at 11:36 p.m. PT Dec. 1.

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