Astronomers have caught a glimpse of Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster as it travels further and further through space. Viewed from a telescope in Arizona, the car can be seen as a tiny dot in a vast sea of stars.
Astronomers Gianluca Masi, of the Virtual Telescope Project, and Michael Schwartz, founder of Tenagra Observatories, used data from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to direct a telescope toward the car and capture an image of its historic journey.
On Tuesday, SpaceX launched the Falcon Heavy—the world’s most powerful operational rocket—from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The vehicle’s 27 engines can generate more than 5 million pounds of thrust on liftoff—the equivalent to that of 18 jumbo jets.
The rocket carried SpaceX and Tesla CEO Musk’s personal cherry red Tesla Roadster into space, over-shooting its intended goal of Mars’s orbit. Musk originally tweeted that the car was headed toward the asteroid belt, but, as The Verge reports, that estimate was premature.
Now it seems the car will reach some 160 million miles from the sun. This is short of the asteroid belt, which begins approximately 2.2 astronomical units, or 200 million miles, from the sun.
The mission is an important step on the human journey toward Mars, Masi told Newsweek.
“This event makes space exploration an even more popular topic—everyone is now talking about us and space, us and Mars," Masi said. "Hopefully, this will help work in that direction—supporting our desires and hopes to reach Mars sometime in the near future.”
For now, a mannequin is piloting the car, appropriately named “Starman.” Before the launch, Musk tweeted the car would play “Space Oddity” by David Bowie as it traveled through space “for a billion years or so.”
The car includes a “Don’t Panic” sign in reference to Douglas Adams's iconic novel, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The phrase is featured on the fictional cover of the eponymous book-within-a-book.
In keeping with this penchant for whimsy, Musk wrote in a Twitter comment: "I love the thought of a car drifting apparently endlessly through space and perhaps being discovered by an alien race millions of years in the future."