Published : Tuesday, February 13, 2018 | 4:17 PM
Tuesday’s maiden launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket had many a jaw-dropping moment, but none more so than Elon Musk’s cherry red Tesla Roadster sports car being “driven” into space with a mannequin dubbed Starman behind the wheel.
Viewers watched Starman make his way into orbit via cameras attached to the car, but they were treated to the sight for only about four hours — until the camera’s batteries ran out.
Starman and his red Tesla are still out there, however, and Jet Propulsion Laboratory has taken over where the cameras left off. JPL has been monitoring the Tesla’s flight path and now suggests that the cherry red car will stay closer to the sun.
Immediately after launch, Musk said on Twitter that the Tesla overshot its intended orbit and would instead fly out past Mars and into the asteroid belt. However, JPL believes the farthest out it will go will be about 250 million kilometers from the sun, or about as far as Mars.
It’ll reach its farthest point from the sun in November 2018, and in September 2019, it will make its first full loop around the sun and will continue to complete that orbit once every 19 months.
Marco Langbroek, a space expert who tracks asteroids, said elements like solar radiation or leftover gas from the second-stage rocket can still bump the car toward a different course.
The car can be seen through a telescope, but not for long—by next week it will be too far away from Earth to track. It’s still possible to calculate where the car is going, and how long it will take to get there. In 1996, JPL created a publicly available tool called HORIZON, which is tracking the car, as it is now a permanent addition to NASA’s directory of solar system bodies.
If you’d like to follow Starman on his journey, go to NASA/JPL’s HORIZONS web interface at https://ssd.jpl.nasa.gov/horizons.cgi?s_body=1#top, click “change” next to the target body, type in “SpaceX,” hit enter, then click “Generate ephemeris.” There, you’ll find details about the Roadster and its position in the sky.
With every test launch comes a dummy payload, which is usually in the form of a concrete block. Musk previously said he wanted the payload to be something memorable—the “silliest thing we can imagine,” and picked his own Tesla Roadster.
“I love the thought of a car drifting apparently endlessly through space and perhaps being discovered by an alien race millions of years in the future,” he said.