Red Roadster to Red Planet

Remember when SpaceX launched a Tesla Roadster with a mannequin into space on a Falcon Heavy rocket? That same car just made a flyby of Mars on October 7. Just over two years and six months after the first flight of a Falcon Heavy rocket, the rocket that carried Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster into space, the Falcon Heavy’s depleted second stage is gliding through the solar system, pushing a cherry red convertible with a spacesuit-clad mannequin “driving.”

The car was launched on February 6, 2018, on the first flight of SpaceX’s new Falcon Heavy rocket. The Falcon Heavy is a triple-core heavy-lift launch vehicle. This means that it is made of three cylinders attached together, with the middle one being the longest, instead of the normal single-cylinder rocket. These extra boosters are part of the first stage of the rocket and fall off the sides in the upper atmosphere and can then land themselves on drone ships just like the Falcon 9, SpaceX’s most popular rocket. In fact, the cores are all Falcon 9 first stages with some extra parts to hold them together. The reason the Falcon Heavy is considered a heavy-lift launch vehicle is because it can lift between 20,000 and 50,000 kilograms (44,000 to 110,000 pounds) into low orbit around the Earth (LEO). The Falcon Heavy is the most powerful operational rocket in the world right now, doubling the power of the next most powerful rocket.

The Falcon Heavy lifted the Tesla Roadster and its “driver,” collectively known as Starman, into a highly elliptical orbit that takes it far past Mars and almost into the asteroid belt at its farthest point. Starman, the name of the mannequin (Or the name of the car-mannequin team. It can be either.),  just passed within five million miles of Mars on its way back from the far reaches of its orbit. From this distance, Mars would have looked about one-tenth the size of Earth’s Moon when viewed from Earth. This seems small, but when people can see Mars from Earth without a telescope it just looks like a slightly reddish star in the night sky. Starman has crossed Mars’s orbit before, on its first 577 Earth day long orbit around the Sun, but at that time Mars was nowhere close to where the orbits intersect. The highly elliptical orbit of Starman has caused the vehicle to travel far enough to pass its 36,000-mile warranty over 3,000 times, achieve a fuel economy of 10,313.3 miles per gallon, and cover enough distance to drive every road on Earth 57 times. There has even been a website created to track the space-faring convertible on its journey around the Sun that will likely end tens of millions of years from now when the Roadster once again finds a road on Earth or crashes into Venus.

Starman will continue to fly through the solar system for a very long time and it is very likely it will make a close approach to another planet. It could be any of the inner planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars) because of the path of its orbit as shown on the Where Is Roadster website. This orbit started when SpaceX decided to risk Elon Musk’s Tesla convertible on the very first flight of their Falcon Heavy rocket. What else will SpaceX do on the first flight of experimental rockets? We’ll have to find out with Starship their even bigger rocket.

Sean Harren, Staff Writer

Freshman Sean Harren is a staff writer for the 2020-2021 Colonel. He plays soccer and lacrosse. In his free time, he enjoys sailing and CAD modeling/3D printing.

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