Driving in Circles

Elon Musk’s red Tesla Roadster set to complete a second orbit of the Sun

The red Tesla Roadster, first launched into space by the Falcon Heavy, is about to complete its second orbit.

Handout/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Elon Musk's Tesla Roadster is on an impressive tour of the Solar System.

The red electric car, first launched into space on February 6, 2018, has carried a dummy called "Starman" on an unimaginable journey toward Mars. On Wednesday, nearly three years after the car first launched, the tracker WhereIsRoadster showed the car had completed 1.9244 orbits of the Sun, with an orbital period of 557 days.

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The website shows how far it has gone in that time. It has traveled nearly 1.5 million miles, enough to outstrip the warranty over 40,000 times and far enough to travel the world's roads 64 times. It's moving at a speed of nearly 72,000 mph, reaching a fuel economy of 11,480 miles per gallon.

The imminent milestone is a reminder of how far Musk's space-faring firm SpaceX has come. The car was launched on the maiden test voyage of the Falcon Heavy, which ranks as the world's most powerful operational rocket. The design uses three engine cores from the Falcon 9, SpaceX's most commonly-used rocket, to lift nearly 141,000 pounds into orbit.

The rocket's first payload was rather unique. "Starman" sat in the driver's seat of Musk's electric car, fitted with a company spacesuit. Emblazoned on the dashboard were the words "Don't Panic," a reference to the Douglas Adams novel The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. There was a “5D quartz laser storage device,” produced with the Arch Mission Foundation, that contained Isaac Asimov's Foundation book trilogy. The in-car sound system played David Bowie's "Space Oddity" on loop.

If the dummy was a real person, it would likely be sick of the song. The website shows "Starman" would have listened to it nearly 300,000 times.

"It's still trippin' me out," Musk told reporters in a post-launch press conference. "I mean, I'm trippin' balls here."

Starman on his journey.SpaceX

The car completed its first tour of the Sun on August 18, 2019, having driven around 762 million miles. On October 7, 2020, the car made its first close approach with Mars, coming within five million miles of the red planet. The vehicle's second trip around the Sun will be complete on February 25, 2021.

Falcon Heavy itself made a grand entrance, but it's seen little use since the launch. Its first commercial flight was the Arabsat-6A flight on April 11, 2019. The second was the STP-2 flight on June 25, 2019. The next flight is expected early this year, sending up classified payloads for the United States government.

Unfortunately, there's little chance of being able to see "Starman" from Earth. The tracker explains that, to see the rocket's upper stage from Earth, astronomers would require a telescope measuring 8,457 feet in diameter.

The Inverse analysis — The Roadster's journey has been impressive, but it could pale in comparison to what comes next.

SpaceX is working to send real humans to Mars and beyond. It's developing the Starship, a fully-reusable stainless steel ship designed to take on the tasks of existing rockets like Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy. The goal is to send the first humans to Mars and build a city on the red planet as early as 2050.

"Starman" will likely remain a symbol of SpaceX's imaginative approach to space launches. The car, laden with references to sci-fi and pop culture, may not be in any recognizable state due to the radiation of outer space. But in thinking about how far it's gone on its own journey, "Starman" symbolizes why the Starship project has excited so many people.

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