Hard Not to Get a Little Teary Watching this Video from SpaceX About the Falcon Heavy Launch

The launch of the Falcon Heavy , which took place on Feb. 6th, 2018, was an historic event. After years of preparation, SpaceX successfully launched the heaviest vehicle in its arsenal, which has a lift capacity that is over twice as much as the next heaviest rocket (the United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy). The launch also demonstrated SpaceX’s commitment to reusability, where two of the three cores were recovered afterwards.

In addition, the launch was a media frenzy as the heavy rocket deployed some very unusual cargo – a Tesla Roadster with Starman (an empty spacesuit) in the driver’s seat. In honor of this event, the company has released a video that showcases the highlights of the launch. Consistent with the theme of the launch, the video was set to David Bowie’s 1971 hit “Life on Mars”, and is quite emotional to watch!

The Tesla Roadster and its pilot “Starman” leaving Earth behind. Image: SpaceX

The video begins by showing the crowds assembled outside of SpaceX’s launch site at Space Complex 39A at Cape Canaveral, Florida. We then see Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster and Starman being loaded aboard the Falcon Heavy payload capsule. What follows is the rollout of the Falcon Heavy at Cape Canaveral, its deployment on the launch pad, and the rocket blasting off.

This is where things get emotional as Bowie’s song hits a crescendo and people on the ground and in the launch complex celebrate the successful launch. We are also treated to some footage of Starman and the Roadster being deployed once they reach orbit. As Starman floats in full view of Earth, we also see the successful recovery of two of the Falcon 9 cores, and the crashing at sea of the third.

While the video manages to cover all the major aspects of the launch, the real focus is definitely on the people who witnessed the event. As the video plays, you can see the anticipation and hope as the rocket is preparing for launch and the sense of elation that came from its success. This is in keeping with Elon Musk’s vision for SpaceX, which he founded in 2002 to inspire public interest in renewed space exploration.

As Musk tweeted after the launch:

“Life cannot just be about solving one sad problem after another. There need to be things that inspire you, that make you glad to wake up in the morning and be part of humanity. That is why we did it. We did for you.”

Of course, one can’t forget how the launch also signaled that SpaceX is one step closer to achieving Musk’s other dream – which is to reduce the cost associated with space launches by making rockets fully reusable and restoring domestic launch capability to the United States. Now that SpaceX is capable of lifting 64 metric tons (141,000 lbs), NASA won’t have to depend on Roscosmos to send crews and heavy payloads into orbit much longer.

And of course, the deployment of a car into space, which is expected to remain in orbit of Mars and maybe even return to Earth someday, was pure media gold!

Be sure to check out the video below, and be prepared to get inspired:

Further Reading: SpaceX

Astrophotographer Captures Musk’s Tesla Roadster Moving Through Space

An astrophotographer in California has captured images of Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster on its journey around our Sun. In the early morning of February 9th, Rogelio Bernal Andreo captured images of the Roadster as it appeared just above the horizon. To get the images, Andreo made use of an impressive arsenal of technological tools.

Andreo knew that photographing the Roadster would be a challenge, since it was over a million miles away at the time. But he has the experience and equipment to pull it off. The first task was to determine where the Tesla would be in the sky. Luckily, NASA’s JPL creates lists of coordinates for objects in the sky, called ephemerides. Andreo found the ephemeris for Starman and the Roadster, and it showed that the pair would be in the Hydra constellation, and that they would be only about 20 degrees above the horizon. That’s a challenge, because it means photographing through more atmospheric density.

The Tesla Roadster and its pilot “Starman” leaving Earth behind. Image: SpaceX

However, the Roadster and its driver would be bright enough to do it. As Andreo says in his blog, “The ephemeris from the JPL also indicated that the Roadster’s brightness would be at magnitude 17.5, and I knew that’s perfectly achievable.” So he gathered his gear, hopped in his vehicle, and went for it.

Andreo’s destination was the Monte Bello Open Space Preserve, a controlled-access area for which he has a night-time use permit. This area is kind of close to the San Francisco Bay Area, so the sky is a little bright for astrophotography, but since the Roadster has a magnitude of 17.5, he thought it was doable. Plus, it’s a short drive from his home.

Once he arrived there, he set up his impressive array of gear: dual telescopes and cameras, along with a tracking telescope and computers running specialized software. Andreo explains it best:

“Let me give you a brief description of my gear – also the one I use for most of my deep-sky images. I have a dual telescope system: two identical telescopes and cameras in parallel, shooting simultaneously at the very same area of the sky – same FOV, save a few pixels. The telescopes are Takahashi FSQ106EDX. Their aperture is 106mm (about 4″) and they give you a native 530mm focal length at f/5. The cameras are SBIG STL11k monochrome CCD cameras, one of the most legendary full-frame CCD cameras for astronomy (not the best one today, mind you, but still pretty decent). All this gear sits on a Takahashi EM-400 mount, the beast that will move it at hair-thin precision during the long exposures. I brought the temperature of the CCD sensors to -20C degrees (-4F) using the CCD’s internal cooling system.”

CCD’s with internal cooling systems. Very impressive!

The Takahashi FSQ106. Two of these beasts are at the heart of Andreo’s astrophotography system. Image: Takahashi Telescopes

Andreo uses a specialized focusing system to get his images. He uses focusers from Robofocus and precision focusing software called FocusMax. He also uses a third, smaller telescope called an autoguider. It focuses on a single star in the Field of View and follows it religiously. When that star moves, the whole rig moves. As Andreo says on his blog, “Autoguiding provides a much better mount movement than tracking, which is leaving up to the mount to blindly “follow” the sky. By actually “following” a star, we can make sure there’ll be no trails whether our exposures are 2 or 30 minutes long.”

Once he was all set up, there was time pressure. The Roadster would only be above the horizon for a short time and the Moon was coming up and threatening to wash out the sky. Andreo got going, but his first shots showed nothing.

Where the Roadster should be, Andreo’s photos showed nothing. But he wasn’t deterred. Image: Rogelio Bernal Andreo, (DeepSkyColor.com) (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

Andreo felt that once he got home and could process the images properly, the Tesla Roadster and its driver would be somewhere in his images. He kept taking pictures until about 5 AM. Cold and tired, he finally packed up his gear and went home.

“…no matter what I did, I could not find the Roadster.” Astrophotographer Rogelio Bernal Andreo

After some sleep, he began working with his images. “After a few hours of sleep, I started playing with the data and no matter what I did, I could not find the Roadster. I kept checking the coordinates, nothing made sense. So I decided to try again. The only difference would be that this time the Moon would rise around 3:30am, so I could try star imaging at 2:30am and get one hour of Moon-free skies, maybe that would help.”

Rogelio Bernal Andreo is a very accomplished astrophotographer. His images have been chosen as NASA’s Astronomy Photo of the Day over 50 times. This close-up of the Orion Nebula was chosen as APOD on June 4, 2017. The three bright stars are Orion’s belt. Image: Rogelio Bernal Andreo (DeepSkyColors.com) (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

So Andreo set out to capture the Roadster again. The next night, at the same location, he set up his gear again. But this time, some clouds rolled in, and Andreo got discouraged. He stayed to wait for the sky to improve, but it didn’t. By about 4 AM he packed up and headed home.

After a nap, he went over his photos, but still couldn’t find the Roadster. It was a puzzle, because he knew the Roadster’s coordinates. Andreo is no rookie, his photos have been published many times in Astronomy Magazine, Sky and Telescope, National Geographic, and other places. His work has also been chosen as NASA’s APOD (Astronomy Picture of the Day) more than 50 times. So when he can’t find something in his images that should be there, it’s puzzling.

Then he had an A-HA! moment:

“Then it hit me!! When I created the ephemeris from the JPL’s website, I did not enter my coordinates!! I went with the default, whatever that might be! Since the Roadster is still fairly close to us, parallax is significant, meaning, different locations on Earth will see Starman at slightly different coordinates. I quickly recalculate, get the new coordinates, go to my images and thanks to the wide field captured by my telescopes… boom!! There it was!! Impossible to miss!! It had been right there all along, I just never noticed!”

Andreo is clearly a dedicated astrophotographer, and this is a neat victory for him. He deserves a tip of the hat from space fans. Why not check out his website—his gallery is amazing!—and share a comment with him.

Rogelio Bernal Andreo’s website: DeepSkyColors.com
His gallery: http://www.deepskycolors.com/rba_collections.html
Also, check out his Flickr page: https://www.flickr.com/photos/deepskycolors/

Andreo explained how he got the Roadster images in this post on his blog: Capturing Starman from 1 Million Miles

What are the Chances Musk’s Space Tesla is Going to Crash Into Venus or Earth?

On February 6th, 2018, SpaceX successfully launched its Falcon Heavy rocket into orbit. This was a momentous occasion for the private aerospace company and represented a major breakthrough for spaceflight. Not only is the Falcon Heavy the most powerful rocket currently in service, it is also the first heavy launch vehicle that relies on reusable boosters (two of which were successfully retrieved after the launch).

Equally interesting was the rocket’s cargo, which consisted of Musk’s cherry-red Tesla Roadster with a spacesuit in the driver’s seat. According to Musk, this vehicle and its “pilot” (Starman), will eventually achieve a Hohmann Transfer Orbit with Mars and remain there for up to a billion years. However, according to a new study, there’s a small chance that the Roadster will collide with Venus or Earth instead in a few eons.

The study which raises this possibility recently appeared online under the title “The random walk of cars and their collision probabilities with planets.” The study was conducted by Hanno Rein, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto; Daniel Tamayo, a postdoctoral fellow with the Center for Planetary Sciences (CPS) and the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics (CITA); and David Vokrouhlick of the Institute of Astronomy at Charles University in Prague.

Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster being loaded aboard the Falcon Heavy’s payload capsule. Credit: SpaceX

As we indicated in a previous post, Musk’s original flight plan has the potential to place the Roadster into a stable orbit around Mars… after a fashion. According to Max Fagin, an aerospace engineer from Colorado and a space camp alumni, the Roadster will get close enough to Mars to establish an orbit by October of 2018. However, this orbit would not rule out close encounters with Earth over the course of the next few million years.

For the sake of their study, Rein and his colleagues considered how such close encounters might alter the Roadster’s orbit in that time. Using data from NASA’s HORIZONS interface to determine the initial positions of all Solar planets and the Roadster, the team calculated the likelihood of future close encounters between the vehicle and the terrestrial planets, and how likely a resulting collision would be.

As they indicated, the Roadster bears some similarities to Near-Earth Asteroids (NEAs) and ejecta from the Earth-Moon system. In short, NEAs permeate the inner Solar System, regularly crossing the orbits of terrestrial planets and experiencing close encounters with them (resulting in the occasional collision). In addition, ejecta from the Earth and Moon also experience close encounters with the terrestrial planets and collide with them.

However, the Tesla Roadster is unique in two key respects: For one, it originated from Earth rather than being pulled from the Asteroid Belt into the inner Solar System by strong resonances. Second, it had a higher ejection velocity when it left Earth, which tends to result in fewer impacts. “Given the peculiar initial conditions and even stranger object, it therefore remains an interesting question to probe its dynamics and eventual fate,” they claim.

The Falcon Heavy Rocket being fired up at launch site LC-39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Image: SpaceX
The Falcon Heavy Rocket being fired up at launch site LC-39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: SpaceX

Another challenge was how the probability of an impact will change drastically over time. While the chance of a collision can be ruled out in the short run (i.e. the next few years), the Roadster’s chaotic orbit is difficult to predict over the course of subsequent close encounters. As such, the team performed a statistical calculation to see how the orbit and velocity of the Roadster would change over time. As they state in their study:

“Given that the Tesla was launched from Earth, the two objects have intersecting orbits and repeatedly undergo close encounters. The bodies reach the same orbital longitude on their synodic timescale of ~2.8 yrs.”

They began by considering how the Roadster’s orbit would evolve over the course of its next 48 orbits, which would encompass the next 1000 years. They then expanded the analysis to consider long-term evolution, which encompassed 240 orbits over the course of the next 3.5 million years. What they found was that on a million-year timescale, the orbit of the Roadster remains in a region dominated by close encounters with Earth.

However, over time, their simulations show that the Roadster will experience changes in eccentricity due to resonant and secular effects. This will result in interactions more frequent interactions between the Roadster and Venus over time, and close encounters with Mars becoming possible. Over long enough timescales, the team even anticipates that interactions with Mercury’s orbit will be possible (though unlikely).

Don't Panic StarMan, Don't Panic. Credit: SpaceX
Don’t Panic StarMan, Don’t Panic. Credit: SpaceX

In the end, their simulations revealed that over the course of a million years and beyond, the probability of a collision with a terrestrial planet is unlikely, but not impossible. And while the odds are slim, they favor an eventual collision with Earth. Or as they put it:

“Although there were several close encounters with Mars in our simulations, none of them resulted in a physical collision. We find that there is a ~6% chance that the Tesla will collide with Earth and a ~2.5% chance that it will collide with Venus within the next 1 Myr. The collision rate goes down slightly with time. After 3 Myr the probability of a collision with Earth is ~11%. We observed only one collision with the Sun within 3 Myr.”

Given the Musk hoped that his Roadster would remain in orbit of Mars for one billion years, and that aliens might eventually find it, the prospect of it colliding with Earth or Venus is a bit of a letdown. Why bother sending such a unique payload into space if it’s just going to come back? Still, the odds that it will be drifting through space for millions of years remains a distinct possibility.

And if there are any worries that the Roadster will pose a threat to future missions or Earth itself, consider the message Starman was looking at during his ascent into space – Don’t Panic! Assuming humanity is even alive eons from now, the far greater danger will be that such an antique will burn up in our atmosphere. After millions of years, Starman is sure to be a big celebrity!

Further Reading: arXiv

Here’s a Prediction About the Orbit Musk’s Tesla is Going to Take Through the Solar System

After multiple delays, SpaceX recently announced that the inaugural flight of their Falcon Heavy rocket would take place this Tuesday, February 6th, 2018. This rocket, which is the heaviest launch vehicle in the SpaceX fleet (and the most powerful operational rocket in the world right now), is not only central to the company’s vision of reusable rockets, but also to Musk’s long-term vision of sending humans to Mars.

As a result, people all over the world have been tuning in to watch the coverage of the event, and eagerly waiting to see the rocket take off before its launch window closes at 04:00 pm (PST) this afternoon. In keeping with Musk’s habit of sending interesting payloads into space, the rocket will be carrying his cherry-red Tesla Roadster, with the goal of depositing it into a stable orbit around Mars.

According to previous statements made by Musk, the plan calls for the Falcon Heavy to launch the Roadster on a Hohmann Transfer trajectory, an orbital maneuver where a satellite or spacecraft is transferred from one circular orbit to another. After being placed in an elliptical orbit between Earth and Mars, the Roadster would be picked up by Mars’ gravity and remain in orbit around it for (according to Musk) up to a billion years!

To add to the peculiarity of the mission payload, Musk has also been clear that he wants the car to be playing “Space Oddity” – the famous song written and performed by the late and great David Bowie – as its launched into space. This classic song recently got a shot in the arm thanks to Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who performed a rendition of the song while still serving as the commander of Expedition 35 aboard the International Space Station.

But unlike Hadfield’s more positive rendition of the song (which you can watch above), in which the astronaut (Major Tom) does NOT die, Musk’s Roadster will be belting out this tune in its original form. One can only assume that he’s not a particularly superstitious man, or just has a very quirky sense of humor. Considering that a previous payload consisted of a wheel of cheese, I think we know the answer!

Musk confirmed that the launch would take place at 0:130 pm EST (10:30 am PST) in a tweet he posted yesterday, where he stated:

This was followed by an additional tweet posted at 07:59 am PST, which indicated that the launch was still on. However, Musk announced that there would be a minor delay at 09:02 am PST, which was apparently weather-related:

“About 2.5 hours to T-0 for Falcon Heavy. Watch sim for highlight reel of what we hope happens. Car actually takes 6 months to cover 200M+ miles to Mars”

“Upper atmosphere winds currently 20% above max allowable load. Holding for an hour to allow winds to diminish.

In addition, changes were seen in the countdown clocks run by the US Air Force’s Eastern Range operations. This pushed the launch from its original time of 01:30 pm to 03:19 pm EST (12:19 am PST), and then led to the count being placed on hold.  By 10:52 am PST this morning, the launch clock resumed and Musk indicated that the takeoff would commence at 3:45 pm EST (12:45 PST).

This was followed by the SpaceX ground crew commencing procedures to fuel the rocket at about 11:22 am PST.

Naturally, there has been plenty of speculation about the possible outcome of the mission. Max Fagin, an aerospace engineer from Colorado and a space camp alumni, is one such person. In a video he uploaded to his Youtube channel yesterday (Feb. 5th, 2018), he clarified what the proposed launch entails and offered his thoughts on what will likely happen to the Roadster once its sent into space.

Addressing Musk’s stated goal of a Hohmann Transfer that would put the roadster into Mars’ orbit, he indicated that Musk must have been oversimplifying because there’s no reason to launch a spacecraft on such a trajectory right now. This is due to the fact that this maneuver only makes sense when Earth and Mars are at the closest points in their orbits to each other – aka. when Mars is at opposition.

This is not the case at present, and won’t be again until April-May of this year. At that point, Earth and Mars will be the closest they have been to each other since the year 2000, and will not be in such a perfect opposition again until 2033. As a result, says Fagin, a “true Hohmann Transfer launched from Earth to Mars right now would take the Roadster no closer than 90 million km from Mars – 0.6 times the distance from Earth to the Sun.”

Having said all that, here is what Fagin thinks is actually going to happen:

“Given how light the Roadster is, and given how powerful the Falcon Heavy is, I suspect Falcon heavy is going to impart a little extra delta-v to the Roadster, beyond what would be required for a minimum-energy Hohmann Transfer. This would allow the Roadster to get as close to Mars as SpaceX wanted sometime in October of 2018.”

According to Fagin’s analysis, the Roadster would still not be able to remain in the same orbit of Mars for a billion years, which was Musk’s stated goal. But it would achieve a more stable orbit than a basic Hohmann Transfer would accomplish. In that scenario, the orbit would be perturbed by close encounters with Earth, and the Roadster might eventually come back to Earth.

In other words, the plan may be more complicated than originally stated, but could be largely successful all the same. Come what may, there is no shortage of people who want to see this rocket successfully take off! After all, it’s not only SpaceX’s future that is riding on the outcome of this launch, but perhaps even the future of space exploration itself. Cheaper costs and restored launch capability, that’s what it’s all about!

Barring any further delays, which will push the launch back until tomorrow, the launch will be taking place in T-minus 20 minutes (as of the penning of this article)! In the meantime, be sure to check out SpaceX’s live coverage of the event, which begins today (Tuesday, Feb. 6th) at 12:45 pm (GMT-8):

Further Reading: SpaceX webcast, SpaceX, Twitter (Elon Musk), Orlando Sentinel