- In February 2018, SpaceX launched a Tesla Roadster owned by the company’s founder, Elon Musk, into deep space.
- The electric vehicle, which has a spacesuit-clad “Starman” dummy in the driver’s seat, just made its first flyby of Mars.
- To Starman, Mars would have appeared to be about one-tenth the size of the moon as seen from Earth, the astronomer Jonathan McDowell said.
- The vehicle and its unlikely passenger, launched on the upper stage of a Falcon Heavy rocket, may travel for millions of years before crashing, most likely back into Earth.
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An electric car that Elon Musk rocketed into space more than two years ago just flew past Mars for the first time.
SpaceX, the rocket company Musk founded, launched his old Tesla Roadster aboard a Falcon Heavy rocket in February 2018 with a spacesuit-wearing dummy named “Starman” at the wheel.
The car also carried a Hot Wheels model of itself with a miniature Starman inside. In storage, it holds a copy of the sci-fi novels “Foundation” by Isaac Asimov and “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” by Douglas Adams, along with a towel and a sign that says “Don’t Panic.” The car’s speakers even blasted the song “Space Oddity” by David Bowie after launch.
Since then, the rocket’s second stage has glided through space with no fuel to propel it, with Musk’s old red car perched on top of it.
“It’s a rocket stage with a hood ornament,” Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who independently calculated the Tesla’s close Mars pass, told Business Insider.
The Tesla was supposed to slip into a circular orbit between Mars and the sun. But the mission overshot and ended up on an elliptical path that takes it far past Martian orbit, toward the asteroid belt; it completes an orbit about every 557 days. The car’s trajectory had taken it past Mars orbit before, but at that time the planet was nowhere near the point where Starman intersected its path.
The car made its first close approach to Mars at about 2:25 p.m. ET on Wednesday, passing about 7.4 million kilometers (4.6 million miles) from the red planet, according to McDowell’s calculations. (SpaceX on Wednesday tweeted a similar estimate of “under 5 million miles” for the flyby distance.)
Neither the Tesla nor the Falcon Heavy stage attached to it is sending signals back to Earth, so McDowell calculated its path from the last data available as it left Earth. He used the same gravitational data that NASA uses to steer its space probes.
“It’s a pretty confident extrapolation, because we understand gravity pretty well,” McDowell said. “The only thing that could throw you off is what we call outgassing: If there was leftover fuel, or if the paint job on the Tesla carriage came off, that acts as a little rocket that pushes it forward. But that won’t change it much.”
But Starman isn’t getting an up-close view of the Martian surface. According to McDowell’s math, at that distance the planet would appear to be about one-tenth the size of the moon as seen from Earth.
“If you were doing a flyby mission, that would be considered a failure. It would be too far to get decent pictures,” McDowell said. “You could see that [Mars] was round.”
But, he added, “it’s interesting that it comes that close.”
Musk’s car is set to pass close to Earth on November 5, within 52 million kilometers (32 million miles) of our planet. Eventually it will go past Venus and Mercury.
Shortly after the Tesla Roadster launched, three researchers at the University of Toronto calculated that the car would drift through space until it crashes into Earth, Venus, or the sun sometime in the next 10 million years.