The SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket (above) and Blue Origin’s planned New Glenn heavy lifter should prove that big, new rockets are no longer the sole province of government. Credit: SpaceX

Updated 8:30 p.m. Eastern.

WASHINGTON — SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk said late Dec. 1 that he has selected the payload that will fly on the first launch of the company’s long-delayed Falcon Heavy rocket in January: a Tesla sports car.

In a pair of tweets, Musk said the first flight of the Falcon Heavy rocket, now scheduled for January, “will be my midnight cherry Tesla Roadster playing Space Oddity. Destination is Mars orbit.”

Falcon Heavy to launch next month from Apollo 11 pad at the Cape. Will have double thrust of next largest rocket. Guaranteed to be exciting, one way or another.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 2, 2017

Payload will be my midnight cherry Tesla Roadster playing Space Oddity. Destination is Mars orbit. Will be in deep space for a billion years or so if it doesn’t blow up on ascent.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 2, 2017

Musk didn’t explain why he chose this unusual payload, although he had tweeted earlier in the year that the first Falcon Heavy launch, a test flight, would carry the “silliest thing we can imagine,” citing a giant wheel of cheese carried on the first Dragon capsule test flight in 2010. At least one other company source has confirmed that the car will fly on that Falcon Heavy launch, but offered no additional details. A company official, speaking on background later Dec. 2, confirmed the plans were true.

Musk’s tweets made it uncertain if the launch would place the car into orbit around Mars, or just into a heliocentric orbit that would take it past the planet. Entering Mars orbit would require some kind of propulsion system to perform an orbital insertion burn.

It’s also unclear if a mission to Mars orbit, or simply to fly by it, would require additional payload reviews from the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, which licenses commercial launches like this one. The FAA has not yet published a launch license for the inaugural Falcon Heavy mission.

The announcement, as unusual as it may be, does indicate the first launch of the heavy-lift rocket is finally approaching, years behind the company’s original schedule. SpaceX had stated earlier this year its intent to perform the first Falcon Heavy launch from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center before the end of the year, but in recent weeks that schedule was becoming increasingly unlikely.

In an on-stage interview this summer at a conference in Washington, Musk played down the prospects of success of the first Falcon Heavy launch. “There’s a lot of risk associated with the Falcon Heavy,” he said. “There’s a real good chance that vehicle does not make it to orbit. I want to make sure and set expectations accordingly.”

“I encourage people to come down to the Cape to see the first Falcon Heavy mission,” he added. “It’s guaranteed to be exciting.”

He offered a similar level of expectation-setting in one of his tweets. “Guaranteed to be exciting, one way or another,” he wrote.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...