Shooting Star

Where is Starman? Tesla Roadster embarks on third — loneliest — orbit around the Sun

Elon Musk's electric car was sent on a tour of the inner Solar System in February 2018.

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Elon Musk's red Tesla Roadster, carrying a dummy with a SpaceX spacesuit, has just completed its second orbit.

The SpaceX CEO's electric vehicle made headlines when it was launched into space on February 6, 2018 aboard a Falcon Heavy, the first flight for the world's most powerful operational rocket.

The website WhereIsRoadster showed that, as of Thursday, February 25, 2021 Musk's car had completed two orbits around the Sun.

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It's a big moment for the unconventional payload. The car holds a dummy dubbed "Starman" in the driver's seat wearing a SpaceX spacesuit. The words "Don't Panic" are emblazoned on the dashboard, a reference to the Douglas Adams novel The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. A "5D quartz laser storage device," produced by the Arch Mission Foundation, contained Isaac Asimov's Foundation book trilogy. The in-car sound system played David Bowie's "Space Oddity" on loop.

SpaceX's Falcon Heavy launching.

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The WhereIsRoadster website's creator, self-taught programmer Ben Pearson, tells Inverse he "hadn't realized" the milestone "was going to happen so soon."

Pearson has had an interest in space for as long as he can remember. Following the Falcon Heavy launch, he realized there was no easy way to track the car's journey — so he stepped up. He completed a basic version of his site in seven hours, and the final version was complete around a month after launch.

Pearson, who has modeled the car's probable journey for the next 68 years, says the car tends to approach Earth and Mars on even-numbered orbits.

That means this upcoming third orbit may leave "Starman" feeling rather lonely.

SpaceX "Starman:" Where is Elon Musk's Tesla Roadster?

At the time of writing, the car has traveled 1.5 billion miles at a speed of over 75,000 mph — enough to travel the world's roads 67 times. If the sound system is still working, "Starman" will have listened to "Space Oddity" 302,870 times since launch.

Seeing the car from Earth at this time would be practically impossible, as it would require a telescope measuring 6,934 feet (2,114 meters) in diameter.

The car made its first close approach to Mars during its second orbit. On October 7, 2020, SpaceX posted on Twitter that the car was within 0.05 astronomical units of the Red Planet, or less than five million miles.

SpaceX "Starman:" What next for Elon Musk's Tesla Roadster?

As each orbit takes 557 days, the car will have completed its third loop on September 5, 2022.

Pearson notes that the end of the third orbit may coincide with SpaceX's planned trip to Mars. At the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia, in September 2017, Musk outlined the company's "aspirational" goal to send two uncrewed Starship rockets to Mars by 2022. The firm would send two further uncrewed ships, plus the first two crewed ships, to the planet the next time Earth and Mars come close in 2024.

"I'll believe that will happen if they get to orbit this year," Pearson says.

The Starship at the center of the plans is still under development. The fully-reusable rocket uses liquid oxygen and methane as its fuel. Musk has claimed that astronauts could visit Mars and refuel using the planet's water and carbon dioxide to make fuel. SpaceX's first two high-altitude tests with prototype Starships ended in flames. In October 2020, Musk suggested an uncrewed mission to Mars would instead take place in 2024.

The Inverse analysis — The Roadster's journey has been tracked through calculations rather than observations, which means the car's current status is not certain.

It's probably not in good shape. William Carroll, a chemist at Indiana University, told LiveScience after the 2018 launch that space radiation would tear organic materials like the rubber tires. The aluminum frame, metal, and glass are likely to fare better.

But the Roadster's main appeal was never its physical state. The iconic image of "Starman" flying through space, with the Earth as its backdrop, has inspired members of the public and sparked excitement around the new space race.

To imagine where "Starman" may fly next is to imagine where humanity could go next.


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