Starman is out there, but we probably won’t see him again until 2047

Ars Technica » Scientific Method 2019-04-10

A launch-day photo of Starman leaving Earth's orbit.

Enlarge / A launch-day photo of Starman leaving Earth's orbit. (credit: SpaceX)

A little more than a year ago, SpaceX launched Elon Musk’s personal Tesla Roadster, complete with a mannequin nicknamed Starman, wearing a SpaceX Dragon spacesuit. About six hours later, the Falcon Heavy rocket's upper stage fired for a final time, sending Starman into an orbit around the Sun, with an aphelion just beyond the orbit of Mars. Since then I, and others, have wondered what the long-term fate of Starman will be.

At first, not much was known about the Tesla's location. The first inkling of its orbital parameters came from an image that Musk tweeted. (Later, this turned out to be inaccurate). The first verified and publicly available location data came from the Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC), the US Air Force command tasked with tracking objects in space. But this only covered the time it was in Earth orbit, not Starman's position after the final upper-stage burn. Using those two pieces of information, on February 7, I created a website that allowed a person to see how far away the Tesla was from Earth. But this data was quite limited at first.

The next bit of information came from JPL Horizons, a tool produced by JPL’s Solar System Dynamics organization that is tasked with tracking objects in the Solar System. On February 8, it used data provided directly from SpaceX to allow one with proper knowledge to query the system and determine exactly where Starman was at any given time. This provided useful information for a few months, but beyond that time period, the data simply could not provide enough information.

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