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Tracking a Tesla Roadster Across the Solar System

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Tracking a Tesla Roadster Across the Solar System
By: Brian Ventrudo

Melotte 20
A GIF showing the motion of Elon Musk's red Tesla roadster through a section of the constellation Hydra. The globular cluster NGC 5694 (Caldwell 66) is in the same field of view. Image credit: Michael Keith and Chilescope.com

Say what you will about Elon Musk, but the man knows how to put on a show. On February 6, 2018, Musk's SpaceX successfully launched their Falcon Heavy rocket, a super-heavy-lift launch vehicle that can boost some 140,000 lbs of payload into Earth orbit. But to attract attention to this event, SpaceX packed a smaller but flashier payload onto the Heavy: Musk's cherry red Tesla Roadster piloted by a spacesuit-clad 'Starman'. The car and pilot have been inserted into a stable heliocentric orbit that will carry the craft out beyond the orbit of Mars. It's now the newest member of the solar system.

So of course, amateur astronomers had to try to image it.

Perhaps the best image of Elon Musk's roadster was captured by Michael Keith. On February 19, from the comfort of his home office in New Jersey, Keith used a remote 20" telescope at the Chilescope observatory to capture an image as the roadster was 3.7 million km from Earth. Although it was very faint, about magnitude 19.8, the car was in a beautiful field near the 10th-magnitude globular star cluster NGC 5694 (Caldwell 66) in the constellation Hydra. The GIF at the top of the page shows the result.

For the next few months, the Tesla continues to move across the sky by several arc-minutes per day. At the beginning of March, it rises before midnight, then a little earlier each night. By May 1, it's about about a fist width below the bright star Spica in Virgo. You will not be able to see the red Roadster, even in a large telescope, but it's fun to think about it. The sports car and its Starman will continue to orbit the Sun between the orbits of Earth and Mars for millions of years.

At least one planetarium app, SkySafari 6, can track the position of the roadster across the sky. There's also a website that shows the current position of the roadster in the solar system relative to the other planets: http://www.whereisroadster.com/charts.html

SpaceX captured live video of the roadster and Starman just after the launch:

The position of the roadster and the evolution of its orbit are of slightly more than passing interest. Scientists are concerned, for example, that it might contaminate Mars or an asteroid with bacteria. And there is, apparently, a 6% chance of the roadster colliding with Earth within the next million years. Though it's also likely that an enterprising spacefarer, in the near future, might recover the roadster and bring it back to Earth.At which time, no doubt, it would be the world's most expensive used car.

Brian Ventrudo
About the Author

Brian Ventrudo is a writer, scientist, and astronomy educator. He received his first telescope at the age of 5 and completed his first university course in astronomy at the age of 12, eventually receiving a master's degree in the subject. He also holds a Ph.D. in engineering physics from McMaster University. During a twenty-year scientific career, he developed laser systems to detect molecules found in interstellar space and planetary atmospheres, and leveraged his expertise to create laser technology for optical communications networks. Since 2008, Brian has taught astronomy to tens of thousands of stargazers through his websites OneMinuteAstronomer.com and CosmicPursuits.com.

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