When regular space agencies like NASA or Russia’s Roscosmos test their rockets, they use concrete or steel blocks as ballast. But that’s way too boring for billionaire battery genius Elon Musk. He wanted to use “the silliest thing we can imagine”.
On February 6, 2018, his SpaceX company tested its $90m Falcon heavy rocket by launching Musk’s own Tesla Roadster into orbit. Behind the wheel was ‘Starman’, a mannequin dressed in a SpaceX pressure suit.
The cherry red car was attached to the rocket’s second stage, inclined at an angle for better weight distribution. At 15:45 Eastern Standard Time, the rocket successfully cleared the launch pad and zoomed off into the sky over Kennedy Space Center. The car orbited the Earth for six hours before the second stage reignited, sending Starman and his Tesla off to cross the orbit of Mars.
FLOATING IN A MOST PECULIAR WAY
Starman won’t be short of entertainment on his interstellar journey. In a tribute to the space-obsessed greats Douglas Adams and David Bowie, the car has a copy of the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in the glove box, while the tracks Space Oddity and Is There Life on Mars? play on a loop via a pair of headphones (even though sound waves don’t travel in space). Further in-car entertainment includes a copy of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy on an optical disc. There’s also a Hot Wheels version of the car with miniature Starman mounted on the dashboard, and a plaque with all the names of the engineers who worked on the project. In another nod to Adams, ‘Don’t Panic’ is emblazoned on the bonnet.
NEXT TIME ROUND
The vehicle will continue to orbit around the sun and will make regular trips to the Earth’s orbit, although the next ‘near miss’ won’t take place until 2091, when the roadster – or ‘spacester’ as it should be known – will only be a few hundred thousand kilometres away.
TO INFINITY AND BEYOND?
According to a study that plotted Starman’s journey over the next several million years, there’s a 6 per cent chance of the car and its occupant slamming into the Earth, and a 2.5 per cent chance of hitting Venus. However, it’s almost certain that at some point in the future they will burn up in the atmosphere of one of those worlds, leaving little but a glowing trail in their wake.
GENIUS OR MADNESS?
Much as some criticised the launch as a silly stunt, the test went flawlessly, with both reusable rocket motors landing within seconds of one another. The success of the Falcon Heavy – currently the world’s most powerful rocket, and the fourth most powerful of all time – opens the door for a new era of space travel and, eventually, planetary colonisation. No doubt Bowie and Adams would both approve.
ARE WE THERE YET?
Currently cruising at around 61,000 miles per hour, Starman has covered enough miles to drive all of the world’s roads 7 times, But where is he TODAY? To find out, you can visit the aptly-named whereisroadster.com, which provides is precise location on a second by second basis. The site also details the distance from the Earth and sun, and by how much it’s exceeded its 36,000-mile warranty (hint: it’s a lot).