Since its launch on February 6 atop a Falcon Heavy rocket, Elon Musk’s cherry red Tesla Roadster and its “passenger” Starman have been moving away from the Sun.
Today, according to the Where is Roadster? website, the vehicle has reached its first apogee from the Sun at a distance of 1.66 Astronomical Units.
(1 AU is the average Earth-Sun distance, or 149.6 million km.)
According to Ben Pearson, who runs the site, the Tesla’s position should be accurate to better than a day, but it is impossible to know for sure. The data on the Tesla’s orbit comes from NASA and tracking by ground telescopes for the first six weeks after launch when the Falcon Heavy’s upper stage, and the Tesla, were still relatively close to Earth.
“There hasn’t been any updates since towards the end of March,” Pearson told Ars. “Still, there’s no reason to suspect it would be more than a little off target.”
After the first few months of spaceflight, only the Hubble Space Telescope could track the Roadster. This instrument, which recently returned to service after a gyroscope problem, can see down to the 30th magnitude, which is a measure of an object’s brightness.
Such a magnitude is extremely faint, about 1 billion times more so than an object visible to the naked eye. Seeing the Roadster at its present distance, just outside the orbit of Mars, is similar to Hubble spying a dark, 15-km wide lump of rock in the Kuiper belt which outside the orbit of Neptune.
Alas, Hubble will not be spending any time trying to find the Roadster. “Hubble orbits are precious and highly competed for, and so it would be a waste of scientific time to devote the resources to look at it,” Ray Villard, news director for the Space Telescope Science Institute, told Ars.
The images in the gallery above show some highlights in Starman’s expected orbit, including a pass to within 0.05 AU of Mars in October 2020 and a pass relatively close to Earth in November 2020. That latter movement should allow some ground-based telescopes to observe it again.