SpaceX reported a long-awaited encounter on Wednesday. Flying through space in his Tesla Roadster, their famous Starman made his first close pass by the planet Mars.
On February 6, 2018, in a now-famous rocket test, SpaceX's new Falcon Heavy booster blasted off for the first time. Perched atop the rocket, acting as a stand-in for the usual 'dummy' weight used during these tests, was Elon Musk's very own red Tesla Roadster. Sitting in the driver seat of the car, wearing a fully-functional SpaceX spacesuit, was a mannequin nicknamed Starman.
This image snapped by cameras attached to the Tesla Roadster shows Starman in space after the Falcon Heavy Launch on February 8, 2018, with Earth in the background. Credit: SpaceX
In an ultimate test of the launch, the second stage of the rocket fired its engine for as long as possible, putting Starman into a path around the Sun that would take it out farther than the orbit of Mars.
Although SpaceX reported in November of 2018, roughly 8 months after the launch, that this rather unique 'road trip' had taken Starman and the Roadster beyond Mars' orbit, their timing was off. Mars wasn't there to greet them at that time. Instead, the planet was far ahead of them in its orbit. The launch would have had to occur in either spring of 2016 or the summer of 2020 for a more 'direct' flight.
As it is, the pair had to make an extra pass around the Sun before they could have their actual first 'close encounter' with Mars.
Starman, last seen leaving Earth, made its first close approach with Mars today—within 0.05 astronomical units, or under 5 million miles, of the Red Planet pic.twitter.com/gV8barFTm7— SpaceX (@SpaceX) October 7, 2020
On October 7, 2020, Starman and his Tesla roadster came to within 0.05 astronomical units of Mars, or roughly 7.5 million kilometres. At that distance, if Starman was still capable of snapping pictures, the Red Planet would appear as just a tiny orange disk against the backdrop of space.
This simulation of Starman's orbit shows that it is very close to Mars, when viewed from directly above. However, the roadster and its passenger are very high above Mars at this time (inset). Credit: Tony Dunn/OrbitSimulator.org/Scott Sutherland
Based on an orbit simulation of Starman produced by amateur astronomer Tony Dunn, its next similar close encounter with Mars should be in April of 2035.
That's a long time to wait. By that time, though, we may actually have humans on Mars to greet its flyby!