From The Editors Science

Space X’s Starman Roadster Goes Beyond Mars’ Orbit

Elon Musk’s personal cherry-red Tesla Roadster and its mannequin driver Starman – launched into space atop a Falcon Heavy rocket on February 6 this year – have, now, gone past the orbit of Mars.

“Starman’s current location. Next stop, the restaurant at the end of the universe,” read a November 3 Space X tweet, accompanied by a diagram showing the orbit of Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars in relation to Starman and his electric car’s location as on November 2, 2018.

The illustration also shows the projected heliocentric orbit of the roadster and the spacesuit-clad Starman, expected to reach its farthest point on November 8, about 155 million miles (1.66 AU) away from the sun, before it loops back in its orbit.

The fact that Musk is an ardent fan of Douglas Adam’s “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” is evident from the second sentence in his company’s tweet, which clearly refers to the second book in the series – “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.”

The Space X chief’s fondness for the great writer and the positive influence of the Hitchhiker’s Guide on his life go way back to his teen years, as he acknowledged in a 2013 interview with Fresh Dialogue host Alison van Diggelen.

Musk said he was “around 12 or 15” when was going through an “existential crisis” and trying to find answers to some of the harder questions about life when he happened to come across “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy,” a book that he referred to as “quite positive.”

The book “highlighted an important point which is that a lot of times the question is harder than the answer,” he told Diggelen.

“And if you can properly phrase the question, then the answer is the easy part. So, to the degree that we can better understand the universe, then we can better know what questions to ask,” he said.

He went on to add: “Then whatever the question is that most approximates: what’s the meaning of life? That’s the question we can ultimately get closer to understanding. And so I thought to the degree that we can expand the scope and scale of consciousness and knowledge, then that would be a good thing,”

In another interview in 2015, Musk once again expressed his admiration for Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide when he acknowledged that “Heart of Gold” from the five-book series was his favorite spaceship.

“The one that’s powered by the Improbability Drive,” he said. “It does the most unexpected things.”

One more proof of the billionaire entrepreneur’s love for the Hitchhiker’s Guide is the fact that the words “Don’t Panic!” that appeared on a cover of the book also featured on the entertainment display panel of Starman’s Roadster – what better tribute to the book and, indeed, the man responsible for it.

In what would turn out be another first for SpaceX, Musk had announced in December 2017 that future test flights of new rockets would carry a Tesla Roadster car, instead of the usual “concrete or steel blocks,” which he called boring.

In a December 22 Instagram post, Musk uploaded the image of the red car alongside a message captioned “A Red Car for the Red Planet.”

“Test flights of new rockets usually contain mass simulators in the form of concrete or steel blocks. That seemed extremely boring. Of course, anything boring is terrible, especially companies, so we decided to send something unusual, something that made us feel,” Musk’s post said, adding that the payload would be an “original Tesla Roadster, playing Space Oddity, on a billion year elliptic Mars orbit.”

The fact that the Falcon Heavy’s mighty Merlins did give the Roadster enough thrust for it to beat Earth’s gravity, allowing it to go into a heliocentric orbit, went on to show to the world that Musk’s confidence was not ill-founded.

According to calculations by Czech and Canadian researchers, the car and its passenger have a good chance of continuing to remain in space for tens of millions of years before crashing back into Earth or Venus, reported BBC at the time.

The researchers gave the car a 6% probability of crashing into earth, a 2.5% chance of colliding with Venus and little or no chance of hitting either the Sun or Mars in the next million years or so.

“We perform N-body simulations to determine the fate of the object over the next several million years, under the relevant perturbations acting on the orbit,” said Hanno Rein (Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto, Canada), Daniel Tamayo (Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Planetary Sciences (CPS) and the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics (CITA), and David Vokrouhlicky (professor at the Astronomical Institute, Charles University, Prague, in their analysis.

“The orbital evolution is initially dominated by close encounters with the Earth. The first close encounter with the Earth will occur in 2091,” they said.

“We estimate the probability of a collision with Earth and Venus over the next one million years to be 6% and 2.5%, respectively. We estimate the dynamical lifetime of the Tesla to be a few tens of millions of years,” their analysis also said.

Here are the upcoming key milestones of Starman Roadster as listed by

  • Far point from Sun on November 8, 2018, at a distance of 1.664 AU.
  • Far point from Earth on February 21, 2019, at a distance of 2.446 AU.
  • Close Approach of Sun on August 14, 2019, at a distance of 0.986 AU.
  • Close Approach of Mars on September 16, 2019, at a distance of 0.649 AU.
  • Far point from Earth on January 17, 2020, at a distance of 2.336 AU.
  • Far point from Sun on May 19, 2020, at a distance of 1.664 AU.
  • Close Approach of Mars on October 6, 2020, at a distance of 0.050 AU.
  • Close Approach of Earth on November 5, 2020, at a distance of 0.346 AU.
  • Close Approach of Sun on February 21, 2021, at a distance of 0.986 AU.
  • Close Approach of Earth on March 29, 2021, at a distance of 0.275 AU
  • Far point from Sun on May 19, 2020, at a distance of 1.664 AU

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