On 6th February, 2018, the falcon heavy launched Starman in a Tesla Roadster into space. During this spectacular event, Starman orbited the earth for 6 hours, capturing beautiful images before the falcon heavy upper stage sent the car into an orbit around the sun. But where is Starman Now?
Will we ever see him again? When will he return to earth and what is the possible solutions for retrieving him. After Starman left earth’s orbit scientists and astronomers around the world pointed their telescopes toward the night sky in order to track the Roadster and predict its future orbit.
A team at JPL used data provided by SpaceX and predicted that star man would pass by earth in the year 2091 getting within a few kilometres. This model proved to be accurate for the first few months but since it was made from a limited amount of data, anything beyond that became increasingly inaccurate. It was not until March, 2019 that we got a solid prediction of starman’s future. Observation of the roadster was seen from a telescope in South Africa J. P. L they were able to refine their measurements and accurately predict starman’s path for the next 50 years. They concluded that Starman is on a path that will pass by Mars in the year 2020, getting within 4.5M miles.
At this point the telescopes we have on Mars won’t be capable of observing an object as dim as the Roadster. Starman will make a closer approach to Mars in the year 2035 getting as close as 1.5M miles. By that time it’s likely we will have more advanced telescopes around and on Mars to capture an image of the roadster even if it’s just a tiny. Starman will make its closest approach to earth in the year 2047, passing by it just 3M miles. At this distance telescopes on earth will be able to observe the Roadster and record its position.
Starman to Earth
What if we were able to catch Starman during this close approach? The idea of retrieving satellites from space isn’t unheard of. Due to the enormous payload bay on the space shuttle, it was capable of retrieving faulty satellites and returning them back to earth. During STS-51, astronauts managed to grapple two communications satellites into the payload bay using EVA jetpacks and the shuttle’s robotic arm. Those satellites were returns to earth and sold to new customers to re-launch them into the correct orbits.
However retrieving satellites outside earth’s orbit is much more challenging and requires a lot more energy. A Japanese spacecraft which launched in 2014 has slowly made its way out to an asteroid 180M miles from earth. It has already managed to retrieve samples from the surface and it will continue to survey the asteroid before returning those samples back to earth in 2020. Although the Roadster is a much heavier to bring back from space, Starship-SpaceX could follow a similar plan to retrieve the Roadster. With the enormous capability of Starship it could refuel in earth’s orbit and perform a manoeuvre to match the roadster’s orbit. With a large amount of fuel remaining it could then capture the Roadster and stored in the payload bay before returning to earth.
So perhaps one day many years down the line the generation that experienced the iconic falcon heavy launch will be reunited with Starman and his Roadster, or maybe it’s best to let him roam the solar system forever like a good luck charm for human civilization.