In 2017 SpaceX prepared for the first launch of its powerful rocket, Falcon Heavy. Elon Musk, the company’s founder, has long sought to colonize Mars. The goal of the launch test was to see if this rocket could put a satellite into orbit around the Earth, and further, could then launch the satellite out to the orbit of Mars.
SpaceX offered to carry a scientific payload for NASA, but NASA declined. This first trial involved considerable risk. Since the trial needed a sufficiently heavy cargo, Elon Musk decided to send his own sports car instead, a red 2008 Tesla Model S electric roadster.
Engineers mounted the car on the rocket’s second stage with tubular structures attached for front and side-view cameras. A full-sized mannequin dressed in a SpaceX pressurized spacesuit occupied the driver’s seat. He was named “Starman” after the David Bowie song. Bowie’s song “Space Oddity” was programmed to play on a continuous loop through the car’s sound system.
So where, oh, where, is our Tesla Model S now?
SpaceX launched the Falcon Heavy rocket with the Tesla Roadster and Starman from the Kennedy Space Center on February 6, 2018. For six hours, it coasted in orbit around the Earth with live-stream videos showing views of the car and its sole passenger, with the Earth in the background. Unfortunately, the batteries did not last as long as anticipated, and the video feed (and David Bowie’s music) ended after only four hours.
Secondary rockets launched the Tesla away from the Earth with enough velocity to escape Earth’s gravity into an elliptical orbit around the sun. It was last seen by Dubbo Observatory’s 0.43-meter telescope on February 8 at approximately 720,000 km (450,000 mi) from Earth.
On July 12, the Tesla crossed the path of the orbit of Mars. Gravity from the sun continuously slowed its outward progress until, on November 10, it reached aphelion (the farthest point away from the sun). It began to fall back in its elliptical orbit. Starman was now on the opposite side of the sun from the launch point, nearly 250 million km (150 million miles, 1.664 AU) away (one AU is the distance the Earth is from the Sun).
The Tesla crossed back past the orbit of Mars on March 28, 2019. The car reached perihelion, the closest point to the sun, on August 15, very near the point on Earth’s orbit where it was launched. It took 557 days to complete one lap, but no one was there to celebrate Starman’s successful orbit. Earth was long gone on its 365-day journey around the sun.
Where is the Tesla Now?
Now on its second lap, the Tesla has completed about 1 2/3 orbits around the Sun. It passed the orbit of Mars, passed aphelion, and is returning toward the sun. It will pass back through the orbit of Mars on October 7, 2020. Mars will be very close to it at that time, close enough that Martians could see the Tesla if they had a telescope and knew where to look.
The website Where in Space Is Tesla Roadster provides a very good model of the various paths of the planets and The Roadster. Click on the buttons below the model to set it in motion, and observe the location of The Roadster at launch and today. You can drag the model to change the viewing angle.
When Will We Be Able to See the Tesla from Earth?
The Tesla will continue making 557-day journeys around the sun, each time ending back at the point on the Earth’s orbit where it was launched. The Earth, in its orbit, will not be there at the same time until the year 2047. Then, the Tesla will be close enough to be seen from Earth with telescopes. It’ll still be too far away for Earth’s gravity to have much effect.
Elon Musk suggested that someday SpaceX may launch a small spacecraft to catch up with the Tesla and take photographs. Unfortunately, Starman is probably not handling his trip through space very well. Chemist William Carroll believes radiation and microasteroids will damage the car and its driver. Tires, paint, plastic, and leather might last only about a year. “Eventually, the only thing that will remain are the aluminum frame, inert metals, and glass not shattered by meteoroids.”
Using data from telescope observations of the first path of the Tesla, astronomers, and mathematicians can calculate its route with great accuracy. Where is Starman? Track Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster in Space! shows the car’s current distances from the Earth, Mars, and the Sun, total distance traveled, and even time since its launch.
However, over long periods of time, predictions become less accurate due to tiny variances such as cosmic radiation and solar winds. Simulations over a 3-million-year timespan show a 6% probability that Tesla will crash back into the Earth.
Mathematicians and scientists can speculate a great deal about paths and conditions. Unless SpaceX can get a spacecraft close enough for photographs, we will have to wait until 2047 to see how Starman has fared on the long journey in his Tesla.