Apparently, with sufficiently powerful optics and a bit of planning, the answer is “yes”. Astronomers are now unofficially competing to see who can spot it the farthest away. 😉 Admittedly, they’re really seeing the Falcon upper stage more than anything else (it’s big and covered in reflective white paint after all), and currently the record stands at 2.5 million kilometers:
This was taken yesterday with a 0.8 meter reflecting telescope at Celado Astronomical Observatory in Italy, and the bragging rights go to Riccardo Furgoni and Giancarlo Favero. The apparent magnitude of Starman was about 19.3, so there is definitely equipment that could still spot it. And that actually makes this a very useful thing to be doing — tracking the Falcon upper stage and the Tesla Roadster is fantastic practice for tracking potentially hazardous asteroids. It is, after all, on exactly the sort of Earth-crossing orbit we ought to be worrying about.
Yesterday, Elon Musk tweeted that the aphelion of the Tesla would put it out into th asteroid belt, but it seems that may not be quite right. After the initial enthusiasm was over, planetary scientists who study near Earth objects did a bit of work with the final velocity figures released by SpaceX and it turns out the final orbit is actually closer to what SpaceX had originally predicted: a bit past Mars. The aphelion will be about 158 million miles from the Sun, and it should reach that distance on or around November 19.
This is still far enough that it will still eventually be perturbed by Jupiter, but not as quickly as if it were reaching the asteroid belt. According to Alan Fitzsimmons of Queen’s University in Belfast, the Falcon upper stage and Tesla payload will likely remain in its current orbit for thousands of years (he did a quick estimate that suggested 10,000 years), but after that the orbit will begin to elongate due to gravitational perturbations. (Other affects will also be at play, but are harder to predict — the solar wind can impart a force on objects, and solar radiation ablating away material can also significantly affect a small body’s path over long timescales.) “Most near-Earth asteroids end by solar vaporization or ejection from the solar system by Jupiter. Near Earth Cars should be the same.”
First off, the best news: the upper stage appears to have performed its final burn on schedule! [UPDATE: final orbit is confirmed, with an aphelion extending nearly to the asteroid belt!] SpaceX is doubtless waiting for confirmation of final orbit before announcement; this is a little trickier when the object is heading into heliocentric orbit and is therefore more challenging to track. But spotters on the ground witnessed engine plumes consistent with the timing and expected ground track of the Falcon upper stage. This view was from Marana, AZ:
Less good news: while the two side cores made perfect landings back at the Cape, the central core missed the droneship. It’s unclear why at this point, but that’s definitely something that SpaceX will want to investigate. Still, recovery is gravy at this point in the program, so it’s not bad at all, and it definitely got *close* to the barge “Of Course I Still Love You”.
And then we’ll wrap up with some coolness! First, replay of the launch broadcast (skip ahead 22 minutes for the actual liftoff; skip to 25 minutes for a bit of David Bowie as we see fairing separation, revealing the mannequin “Starman” in the Tesla):
Now, the launch and landing as viewed by folks on the rooftop of the Cocoa Beach Hilton:
And I don’t know how long this next link will be good for, but Space Videos is streaming a reply of the Starman feed, showing the Tesla and its anthropomorphic occupant prior to that final burn:
Oh, and here’s a graphic showing the final orbit — nearly to the orbit of Ceres! The “Mars-crossing” target was well and truly achieved, and then some.
I’ll have a more detailed post later, but for now — know that they definitely recovered the two side boosters (they landed in formation with perfect precision at Cape Canaveral) and the upper stage with its whimsical payload is now in Earth orbit. The second burn of the upper stage is complete, giving it a 7,000 km apogee. In about four hours, they expect to make a third and final burn to escape Earth orbit — what would be a trans-Mars injection burn if it weren’t for the fact that Mars isn’t in the right position at the moment.
In the meantime, enjoy this shot from a camera mounted on an arm coming out from the payload adapter, with the Tesla, its passenger “Starman”, and Australia prominent in the background:
With luck and fair weather (the latter being a rather tricky thing given Florida’s climate), the Falcon Heavy will blast off from KSC’s LC-39A somewhere between 1:30 PM and 4:00 PM Eastern Standard Time. It should be spectacular — no matter how it goes. (Elon Musk is downplaying it by giving it just 50/50 odds of success.)
And to help get us all in the mood, SpaceX has released an updated animation, showing the actual flight profile (core stage landing at sea, rather than returning to Florida), and depicting the Tesla “mass simulator” that is acting as the payload, with the top down, and an astronaut dummy named Starman riding in the driver’s seat.
Note: the dummy only appears in some of the images I’ve seen on the Internet from the Tesla’s encapsulation. So I am not 100% sure it still got to go along. This animation seems to imply the pictures with him on board are the final ones, though:
Did you think that Electron rocket was small? Well, rockets do come smaller, and a new record has been set for the smallest orbital-capable satellite launch vehicle in production: Japan’s SS-520-4, a souped-up variant of their SS-520 sounding rocket with a third stage. It placed a single Cubesat into orbit.
And there was another launch on January 31! In Russia, at Vostochny Cosmodrome, on a beautiful, clear winter day, a Soyuz 2 began the climb to orbit:
The Vostochny Cosmodrome was long plagued with delays and corruption, and even after finally being completed after the personal intervention of Vladimir Putin, has struggled to ramp up to where it can start actually relieving Baikonur Cosmodrome. The Angara rocket that was planned to fly from there has been plagued by its own delays, and so it was inaugurated with Soyuz 2. That inaugural flight, on April 28, 2016, successfully carried a gamma-ray space telescope dubbed Mikhailo Lomonosov, while the dropped boosters from the Soyuz fell on Russian territory and were retrieved for engineering analysis. But there were no further flights until November 28 of last year, and that one ended in an embarrassing failure: a Meteor-M weather satellite was lost because the Fregat upper stage had been programmed with a course that would have made sense from Baikonur Cosmodrome, but which left it fatally short of velocity when climbing from Vostochny, which is higher latitude.
But Vostochny this week made an important step past that with the successful launch of eleven satellites aboard a Soyuz 2 rocket with a correctly programmed Fregat upper stage. The primary payloads were Kanopus-V3 and Kanopus-V4, disaster monitoring satellites for the Russian government, and there were also 9 nanosatellites from Germany and the US. These include four more Lemurs for Spire Global, which saw two other launches on completely different vehicles over the last three weeks (including the Electron launch), four experimental inter-satellite communications satellites from the University of Berlin, and D-Star One Phoenix from German Orbital Systems (Berlin) and iSky Technology (Czechia). D-Star One Phoenix replaces the original D-Star One, which was lost aboard the last launch out of Vostochny. This illustrates one of the great advantages of nanosatellites — they are so small and relatively inexpensive that replacements can often be obtained quickly.