On Feb. 6, 2018, SpaceX launched the maiden flight of its Falcon Heavy rocket, a booster used for deep space missions, with a special payload on board: a cherry red 2008 Tesla Roadster owned by Elon Musk. The sports car was permanently mounted on the rocket’s second stage and had a spacesuit-clad dummy named “Starman” sitting in its driver’s seat.
The car and its dummy driver, weighing nearly 3,000 pounds together, was to demonstrate the Falcon Heavy was capable of launching heavy payloads towards Mars in future missions. Musk said at the time he wanted to inspire the public about the “possibility of something new happening in space.”
Since launch, tracking where the Roadster is in space has become an annual curiosity. According to WhereIsRoadster.com, an independent site tracking the vehicle’s location using NASA data, it is currently about 65,268,000 miles, or 5.84 light minutes, from Earth and is moving toward us at a speed of 4,416 miles per hour. The car is also moving toward Mars and the Sun.
The Roadster is going around the Sun in an irregular orbit approximately every 557 days and has finished nearly 3.93 solar orbits, according to the tracking site. This orbit will be stable for several million years, according to NASA, although solar and cosmic radiation and micrometeoroid impacts will likely destroy the vehicle over time.
All this is based on simulation, though. The car hasn’t been observed since March 2018, about a month after its launch. According to SpaceX’s calculation, the Roadster completed its first orbit around the Sun in August 2019 and made its first close approach to Mars on Oct. 7, 2020. The next close approach to Earth is expected to happen sometime in 2047 at a distance of 5 million kilometers.
Eventually, Musk’s Roadster will likely crash into either Earth, Venus or the Sun, according to estimates by Hanno Rein, an astrophysicist at the University of Toronto in Canada. The odds of it colliding with Earth (likely burning out in Earth’s atmosphere) within the next 15 million years is about 22 percent, and there is a 12 percent chance it will crash into Venus or the Sun, per Rein’s calculation.
The Roadster was originally intended to be placed into a heliocentric orbit (an orbit around the barycenter of the Solar System) near Mars, but not the actual orbit around the planet, because the rocket stage carrying the car was not equipped with the equipment needed to maneuver it into an exact orbit.
Musk tweeted in 2019 that SpaceX may one day launch a small spacecraft to catch up with the Roadster and take photographs or even bring it back to Earth for research.
At the Roadster’s launch in 2018, Musk set dummy Starman to listen to endless loops of David Bowie’s Space Oddity in one ear and Life On Mars? in the other during the journey.