Five Years On, Where Is Starman And Where Will He Go?

On 6 February 2018, a Tesla Roadster was launched as the mass simulator on the first ever Falcon Heavy launch — putting for the first time ever a car on a Mars-crossing orbit. While undoubtedly a bit of a stunt, the onboard cameras provided an amazing view of our planet Earth as the Starman dummy in the Roadster slowly drifted away from that blue marble, presumably never to be seen again.

This “never” is the point that researchers at the University of Toronto would like to clarify in a paper published after the launch titled The Random Walk of Cars and Their Collision Probabilities with Planets. Using N-body simulations, they come to the conclusion that there’s a 22%, 12%, and 12% chance of the Roadster impacting the Earth, Venus, and the Sun, respectively. But don’t get too excited, it’s not due to happen for a few million years, so it isn’t something any of us will be around to see.

As the Where Is Starman? website shows, the Roadster never reached escape velocity from the Sun’s gravity, meaning that it’s still zipping around in an orbit around our day star. Exposed to the harsh UV and other radiation, it’s likely that very little is left at this point of the Tesla, or Starman himself. Even so, scientists to this day are feeling less than amused by what they see as essentially littering, adding to the discarded rocket stages, dead satellites and other debris that occasionally makes it into the news when it smashes into the Moon, or threatens the ISS.

55 thoughts on “Five Years On, Where Is Starman And Where Will He Go?

  1. “If very little” will remain of the Tesla, what is the big deal? “Space” is called “Space” because it is mostly empty!
    Did the Aries flight to the moon left no debris on earth, the moon, in space, earth orbit, whatever? Dumped a bunch of junk in the ocean, and left several parts in space (NASA not known for retrieving trash). SpaceX is reusable spacecraft. SpaceX apparently only grounded now to let NASA have some limelight (and because they fear that Elon Musk may go to the moon himself). Funny thing is the SpaceX will have to at least do an un-crewed moon landing to test the ship, frankly I’d make it manned to make sure all worked as planned.. How much GHG did the Webb space telescope generate? How much space junk? Get some perspective everyone, Civilian space travel is here. Funny too how SpaceX has “environmental concerns” yet the EV batteries, motors, and even the energy to power them is not an issue.

    1. Because “very little” is still a significant amount when a grain of sand can cause life threatening damage to a space station, other manned vessel etc.

      So, it’s a potentially disastrous problem, at best it’s another piece of space junk that has to be taken into account when planning launches, satellite positions and future missions.

      1. “Because “very little” is still a significant amount when a grain of sand can cause life threatening damage to a space station, other manned vessel etc. ”

        They need Kevlar, lots of Kevlar! To make a big vest for the ISS or the next space station.😄
        Or maybe something fluffy, say, a huge fake fur coat, will be enough ? 🙂

      2. While I agree that space littering should be frowned upon, saying this threatens satellites is disingenuous; debris in earth-orbit threatens satellites, not debris is sun-orbit, since it is very far away from earth. Also, there is so much non-manmade space junk in sun orbit (like meteoroids, comets, and asteroids) that this hardly matters.

        Rogue countries blowing up satellites (either their own, as a test, or another country’s spy satellites) are a much bigger problem, because that produces thousands of small to medium sized particles in earth orbit, that take forever to decay and burn up in the atmosphere.

          1. In the Tesla car’s orbit? Unless they are capable of thousands of km/s ∆v, they are in about the same orbit. Stuff doesn’t just “float off” forever in space; that requires huge amounts of energy. If the guy in the Tesla threw a beer can out the window, it would come back about a year later and hit him in the head.

      3. I think your scale is off. It’s like having an errant Lego brick on the floor. You are likely to make contact at some point. However, if somebody drops the same from a church tower 5 miles away, you’re pretty safe.

    2. ““If very little” will remain of the Tesla, what is the big deal? “Space” is called “Space” because it is mostly empty!”

      To the English language folks, maybe.

      But in the past, there was the German term “Weltenraum”, meaning room of worlds.
      Scientists and philosophers were optimistic and thought space was full of life and worlds.

      Today its just “Weltraum” (world room). Or “Weltall” (world everything) or just “All” (everything).

      Kosmos or Cosmos is also a possibility.
      That’s what the Russians/Soviets used.
      It means universe (Universum in German).

      Another ancient German word was “Welteninsel” (isle of worlds), a reference to the galaxy. Again, people imagined a wondrous place of worlds, life and magnificence.

      And step by step, we find out that this optimistic view of the old days wasn’t so wrong to begin with. Our early modern instruments simply weren’t good enough, let us believe everything is boring and empty out there. There’s so much still to discover, to learn. The universe is an awesome place, full of wonders! 😃👍

    3. Crazy isn’t it. Cherry picking. Gas bad, but EV batteries, wind mills, solar cells are good yet are eye-sores, expensive, and the real environmental concern over time, using scarce natural resources to boot. People want to bury power lines to not see them, but okay to cover acres with cells and mills…. But talk ’em up! Ignore! Rose colored glasses are plentiful it seems! :)

  2. I am slightly confused. I thought a mass simulator was needed as part of the test. Surely lobbing a chunk of lead with the same mass would have had the same or similar negative outcomes? At least with the car there is a chance of sparking the interest of a child, no?

    1. Nobody would be talking about it if a block of lead or concrete was launched.

      Personally I think the choice was spectacular and the lack of imagination and appreciation from various people is just sad and depressing.

    2. They could have used something that would either say in one piece in UV light and other radiation, like a big chunk of steel, or something that would cleanly dissipate into space, like water, dry ice, or something similar. The latter option would seem preferable to me.

    3. The problem if there really is one, is probably that a lead weight wouldn’t break apart into more debris unless it hit something. The usual problem with space debris is that we can track the larger pieces, but when they break apart into a million pieces the size of grains of sand, or even if they just release some flecks of paint, the tiny stuff is capable of doing more damage than a bullet at the speeds they are going. Since this is all interplanetary, the amount of time anything will spend in the space our other craft will be using is low. But it’s still a little unpredictable where exactly pieces will be, and it’s a shame not to take advantage of the opportunity to put something up that gives some kind of ongoing benefit while keeping its pieces under control.

  3. What does “little left” mean. I mean I would expect the plastic, paint and rubber to turn to dust after some amount of time. I remember how old vinyl dashboards used to get brittle and break apart from sunlight. Today’s car parts are more resistant to that but there’s a lot more UV up there right? Still, I didn’t know it would happen this fast but.. zero experience in space so ok I believe you.

    Would the metal body of the car actually be broken down? If so into what? I wouldn’t expect much of it to be oxidized right? Is there really not at least something that is clearly recognizable as the metal body of a car remaining? Help us to picture this, please and thank you!

    1. UV is not going to do a damned thing to the metal, nor is any other radiation. I guess solar wind might scour it down some… over millennia.

      That sentence is just craziness.

      1. You’re being a little too dismissive, have a quick look at this url or do some quick searches of your own

        Radiation messes with stuff on a molecular level, combine that with the big temperature changes that the materials were not designed for and you should have a better understanding. Its going to be an unrecognizable cloud of stuff soon, if not already.

        1. I read that, and it neither told me much of anything I didn’t know nor changed my mind. Firstly, it’s mostly about much higher radiation fluxes, and/or about environments with more heavy charged particles than you get floating around between the orbits of Earth and Mars. Secondly, a few lattice defects aren’t going to disintegrate a car, nor is anything going to be activated enough to matter.

          There are a ton of random artificial metal objects that have been in space for much longer than that car, and are still not only intact, but fully functional. Aluminum (and titanium) is all over the place in spacecraft. Steel isn’t used so much because it’s heavy, but it’s out there. And the “exotic space alloys” part of those metals is almost all about minimal weight for maximum performance, and only incidentally about radiation.

          As for temperature changes, metals are pretty resilient to those, too, especially if they don’t have to deal with a lot of strain.

          Plastic? Heck yeah, it’s going to fall apart, especially if it’s directly exposed to the sun, although it will last longer in interplanetary space than it would in LEO. Metals, no.

          I have a chunk of a of nickel-iron meteorite in the other room. It spent somewhere north of 4 billion years in space without turning into an unrecognizable cloud of anything.

          1. I was thinking exactly the same. “Little” would suggest an almost insignificant amount and while I understand organic materials will break down in UV, inorganic do not. Where do metals come from? Sure by that logic the voyager crafts, mars orbiter or anything man made outside of earth’s magnetosphere in space would be degraded significantly (even with protection) or gone by now, right? I’m not a material scientist but that’s not a logical conclusion without more definition.

            HaD I’d like to see an article about why this would be, genuinely, I’m not being facetious and it’s not to poke holes but to understand things better.

        2. So, you freaked yourself out with a Radiation Wiki page. You don’t know how much radiation has been encountered, and to what effect. Just that it’s nasty, hence vaporized Tesla.

    2. At the end of the day nobody really knows unless we go and look, but we can make an educated guess.

      Temperatures in orbit around Earth range from -270 to 120 ‘C and while i cant find exact numbers i think its safe to say that something orbiting the sun will see an even bigger temperature difference.

      The metal used for cars isn’t good at dealing with large temperature changes & plastic isn’t either. Most metals/alloys become brittle at -100’C and most plastics melt at around 120’C, add to that the fact that radiation is breaking the bonds between atoms so weakening all those materials already, the metal parts of a car are (obviously) not solid metal & there can be a massive temperature difference between one side of the car and the other creating ‘fault lines’ between them.

      Its safe to say the thing is breaking apart as we speak. the interior will have melted now and the metal has been going trough a lot of beating that it was never rated for, its most likely falling apart in a sort of slow-shattering-like-manner now. Unless it collided with something while frozen, then its pretty much entirely gone already.

      1. What are your qualifications? / citations? Metal gets more brittle when cold – yes. So? It’s floating around like a feather in the breeze. The biggest issue I see is that caused by temp differences of the vehicle facing the sun and that in the shade. But even that metal fatigue would be a function of rotation rate, which I believe is low.

        Don’t understand why the universe would hate a Tesla more than all the other metal objects in space, hehe …

        I’d be surprised to learn that the metal had disintegrated. But, looking forward to being educated by ones who actually know… Seriously. I want to know, not just have someone’s opinion or hand-waving guess.

      2. Remember ten years ago, when a mystery object appeared in space? They got a spectral analysis off of reflected sunlight. Result: Titanium Dioxide. The paint used on Apollo stages. That paint lasted 30 years. In 30 years they’ll do an analysis on another object. Result: Turtlewax.

    3. Plus, there’s nothing which would blow the dust away. Even if the whole thing was reduced to some substance which would all be scattered by a cough, it would still remain cohesive in space. Many asteroids have structural integrity comparable to a dust bunny.

  4. “scientists to this day are feeling less than amused by what they see as essentially littering”

    Imho if they wanna complain about something then complain about starlinks plans, that’s “littering space” very close to us and (seen as a whole) its a lot bigger of a possible obstacle. Yeah okay littering in space is bad too, but do we really need to worry about some car orbiting the sun, that’s likely half gone already? To be blunt its not like there’s lack of space in space?

    We know for a fact that there’s too much crap orbiting around earth, i think we should focus on regulating & cleaning that up first before we start thinking about how to do garbage duties for our solar system, some half melted roadster isnt really going to make an impact between the millions of asteroids comets etc, but putting a bunch of stuff in orbit is having an impact already.

    1. Starlink is definitely it’s own kind of problem. Left to itself though those satellites will deorbit themselves and burn up. The car, or it’s remains however will be up there a lot longer.

  5. I personally thought it was an interesting way to test a rocket payload and get a little marketing PR to boot. See we are still talking about it :) ! Space is a big place. Our garbage on planet and around the planet has nothing compared to what is in that ’empty’ area we call space. In fact our planet is just a ‘dust’ mote in comparison.

      1. Also, the Space station periodically has an exposure pallet of different materials outside. Then after ‘x’ time, they bring it home and analyze. So material science exposed to space is being done. Of course the car (and the recent NASA crew module) went beyond the moon for more radiation exposure with no protection for Earths magnetic field.

  6. Calling this littering is indistinguishable from calling the erection of a statue littering. This isn’t a piece of discarded trash like the used-up satellites and rocket stages are. It’s a monument to what can be accomplished when you harness the spirit of innovation to one’s own evil ends. It’s like the ultimate extension of geocaching, but without the geo. It’s a challenge to everyone else out there to build the technology required to GET OUT THERE AND STEAL IT!

    1. Safelight auto glass should have done an April Fools Day commercial with the Roadster getting a spacejunk chip in its windshield, then a Safelight capsule launches on a Falcon rocket so one of their guys can fix it. “Safelight repair, Safelight in space!”

  7. It and the ascent stage of the Apollo 10 LEM “Snoopy” should be used as targets for deep space location and rendezvous tests.

    Determine where they are. Build a rocket and probe to go out to them and “park” next to them. Send back full color HD still images and video.

    It would be nice to have the probes able to attach themselves to the targets and have solar panels to power their cameras and some other instruments. Take images and video of whatever they happen to fly past, and also use the cameras for general astrophotography in various wavelengths.

    One part of gaining accuracy in determining how far away other stars are is the parallax from doing observations at different locations a long distance apart. Currently the maximum baseline length astronomers have is the diameter of Earth’s orbit, and they have to wait six months between observations.

    Having another two sets of instruments orbiting farther out would increase the baseline length and allow for more frequent observations at maximum separation.

    We need a lot of Solar orbiting probes scattered all over the system, communicating via LASER beams to relay commands out and data back to Earth. The probes would be used as an extremely large synthetic aperture instrument.

  8. 1 million years later:

    “It’s a pretty small asteroid, and it should burn up completely in the atmosphere, but the curious part is what we get when we back-trace its orbit…”

  9. Agree. The same shortsightedness in the use of resources and long-term effects for ‘fossil’ fuels, is now being applied to ‘renewables’. There is little “renewable” in discarded wind turbine blades and solar cells nor is there any less waste in their creation.

    1. That’s a dumb thing to say.

      Fossil fuels:
      – Used for decades with little thought for consequences (centuries actually on a much smaller scale due to coal)
      – After use remains in the atmosphere in the form of elevated levels of CO2 as well as traces of heavy metals, carcinogens, etc…
      – Recycling – recycle what? it’s been burnt and is now waste in the air
      – Creation – takes energy to pump and process, often spilled releasing persistent toxins into the environment, creation is a constant process as fossil fuels are consumables that must be replaced

      Turbine blades:
      – People are already working on ways to re-use such as building bridges from them.
      – Technically recyclable today although it is difficult and not very cost effective. People are already working on both better recycling techniques and materials which are more efficiently recycled
      – Creation – Takes energy, one time process creates a mill which lasts for many years

      Solar panels:
      – Technically recyclable but not very cost effective. Improving this is already being worked on.
      – Creation – Takes energy and rare earth metals which must be mined and can produce pollution in mining, better methods of obtaining rare earth metals are already in limited use which can actually clean the environment rather than pollute. Expect to see more of this. Creation is a one time cost to get a panel which will last and produce electricity for a few decades or even longer but with reduced efficiency.

      1. I meant to also add.. what is the environmental cost of windmill blades that are buried instead of re-used or recycled? They don’t dissolve in the wind and rain. Are they actually leaching anything into the groundwater? If not do they have any effect different from a buried rock? Bury them where it snows and make more ski lodges!

    2. Mikeb, whatever ExxonMobil is paying you to post this crap, it’s too much. You make it sound like wind turbine blades and solar panels are used once and then discarded. They last for decades. And if we even recycle only ONE FUCKING TURBINE BLADE ever, it is already infinitely more recyclable than any fossil fuel. Because fossil fuel is literally BURNED. Once. Then it’s gone, leaving behind only a lot of CO2 and sundry heavy metals and particulates finely dispersed in our atmosphere.

      Sorry for all the caps but I’m sick of this bullshit.

  10. Agree. The same shortsightedness in the use of resources and long-term effects for ‘fossil’ fuels, is now being applied to ‘renewables’. There is little “renewable” in discarded wind turbine blades and solar cells nor is there any less waste in their creation.

  11. What makes a bit sad about this comment section is the lack of both humor and a real scientific discussion. Somehow everyone is just trying to outsmart the other. 🤷‍♂️

    So I don’t even try sound smart, rather I wonder why no one has yet made a reference to the ST:VOY episode with the old truck and its AM radio floating thru space (“The 37’s” ).

    Am I the only 90s person down here? Really? 😢

  12. I am genuinely surprised an the many pointless comments regarding the deemed condition of what should happen to this vehicle that is in space awaiting a crash some where in the Solar system. Comments comparing earthly results to car parts re plastic and metals etc. In space and getting close to the Sun is still an unknown. Leather, Plastic, Steel and rubber. There are other comments that annoyed the hell out of me but comparing earther destruction of our earthy property does not mean it shall apply to outer space especially getting so close to the sun. I imagine in time an object will be sighted heading our way and know one will have any idea as to what it is. I do not expect to see the Tesla and rocket as it was sent on its journey. Expectations from uninformed commenters make me laugh. I tend to think that if it survives to come close to earth all will be saying its aliens checking us out as it will be so changed in appearance that it may be noted as a hunk of rock, an unknown metal or an alien space ship. Just sayin. Live Long and Prosper.

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