Today’s Top Space Headline: There’s a Shiny Red Car Floating Around in Our Solar System –“Where Is Elon Musk’s Space Tesla Really Going?”




Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who has been live-tweeting his attempts to discern the correct orbit, tweeted Wednesday, “Elon is still talking about the Starman going to the asteroid belt,” referring to the nickname Musk gave the dummy driver in a nod to David Bowie. “But I’m not convinced yet."

There is, at this very moment, a shiny red car floating around in our solar system. The car, a 2008 Tesla Roadster, hitched a ride to space on what is now the most powerful rocket in operation, the Falcon Heavy, built by Elon Musk’s company SpaceX, writes Marina Koren in The Atlantic. The goal of the Falcon Heavy’s first flight—aside from not blowing up—was to put the Tesla into an elliptical orbit between Earth and Mars, a car and two planets joined together in an endless loop around the sun. That kind of orbit would, at certain times, bring the Tesla near Mars.


The Tesla successfully reached orbit Tuesday afternoon, attached to the upper part of the rocket, and coasted for about six hours—a move meant to demonstrate a new capability for the U.S. Air Force, one of SpaceX’s customers. A livestream from the payload showed surreal views of the car and its sole passenger, a mannequin stuffed into a SpaceX space suit, floating above Earth. Then SpaceX cut the feed, and the upper stage’s engine reignited one last time to give the Tesla a final push into its destined orbit.


After that final blast, Musk shared the Tesla’s location. The car was heading to the asteroid belt. Musk’s tweet sounds like the Tesla is approaching the asteroid belt, but it’s not. “Musk’s message is a bit ambiguous,” Rob Weryk, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy, said in an email. “The payload is still very much near the Earth.”

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The graphic above indicates that SpaceX has calculated the payload’s orbit, and it turns out that the final engine blast propelled the Tesla farther than expected. The push, the pictured orbit seemed to suggest, caused the car to overshoot its final destination and sent it barreling toward the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, a ring of small rocks and dust. The largest object in the asteroid belt is a dwarf planet called Ceres.

Astronomers jumped into action, trying to make sense of it all and talking it out together on social media. The numbers provided, they quickly realized, didn’t exactly match up with the orbit pictured.

“We collectively assumed that the numbers on Musk’s tweet were based on telemetry, and that they’d know best,” says Andy Rivkin, a planetary astronomer at Johns Hopkins University who studies asteroids.

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