- The orbiting Tesla Roadster came within 5 million miles of Mars when Earth is also at its closest.
- Earth and Mars have different enough orbits that we're hardly ever this close together.
- Starman has traveled many millions of miles in the Roadster.
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Inside the Roadster, a Stig-like mannequin nicknamed Starman has become, apparently, the first spacesuit to approach Mars. This bodes well for future spacesuits full of actual human beings.
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
Right now, Mars and Earth are very close together, more than they will be again for another 15 years. The Roadster, boosted by SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy power-doped rocket and following an independent orbit of the Sun, happened to coalesce with Earth and Mars during the close brush—three ellipses just intersecting and hanging out.
Starman will keep flying for as long as its orbit sustains, after burning off its fuel supply early in its flight. Enthusiasts still hope the Roadster and Starman suit will be recovered at some point, but that’s a bit like operating an arcade claw machine game at a distance of millions of miles. Any recovery will likely be an extreme coincidence rather than a goal.
In its long developmental history, Mars is in many ways like a smaller Earth, with evidence of many of the same geophysical processes and a history of a molten, spinning dynamo core. But our orbits never get closer than about 34 million miles apart, meaning Mars has always been in a significantly colder portion of the solar system, at least 39 percent and as much as 67 percent farther from the sun than Earth.
But outer space between and around the two planets is basically the same: inhospitably cold and with a total absence of air and gravity. That means Starman and the Roadster, without factors like humidity, varying temperatures, or corrosive chemicals like road salt, are essentially cryogenically preserved.
The Roadster is traveling almost 55,000 miles per hour, which sounds astonishing until you remember that Earth is going a cool 67,000 mph. In fact, Roadster’s speed almost matches Mars’s slower 54,000 mph. These extraordinary speeds help to indicate how special the coalescence of all three bodies in space really is.
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