Science

Robert Miller: Tracking the 'cool car in space'

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On Feb. 6, Bob Lambert watched the Space X Falcon Heavy hammer its way into space. He saw its two side booster rockets return in perfect synchrony a few minutes later.

And then, to add the maraschino to this celestial sundae, he and his astronomy cohorts at the Charles McCarthy Observatory in New Milford saw the rocket’s payload — a 2008 Midnight Cherry Red Tesla roadster, complete with a mannequin Starman at the wheel and David Bowie’s “Space Oddity’’ floating from the car stereo into the firmament — as it sped from earth to orbit the sun.

“We expected to see it,” Lambert said of last week’s predawn sighting of billionaire Elon Musk’s cool car in space. “It’s a feather in our cap that we can do this.”

The launch may have been the most public display of the sea change happening in the U.S. space program. Instead of NASA controlling every aspect of space exploration, private companies like Musk’s Space X are now building the rockets and delivery capsules to ride on top of them. NASA will do the science. They’ll provide the hardware.

“We are moving in a transition from the Space Shuttle Era,” said Roger Launius, who served as NASA’s chief historian before starting his own company, Launius Historical Services. “It’s the future, there will be commercial projects.”

Launius said it’s not only Musk who is driving this change. Orbital ATK is another private company working in space exploration. So is Blue Origin, owned by the Musk’s fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos. Older aerospace companies like Lockheed Martin and Boeing are building rockets as well.

And for many, it’s a welcome change.

“I think it’s good that space travel is becoming a commodity,” said John Logsdon, professor emeritus of political science and international affairs at the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. “You don’t need a government expert to land a space rocket.”

Lambert got to see the Space X launch through serendipity. While vacationing in Florida, he learned it might actually happen. He drove to Port Canaveral and found a restaurant with a good view of Cape Canaveral’s launch pads.

“It was just full of Space X people,” he said. “They were extremely excited. Everyone recognized it was a unique moment.”

After a four-hour wait, the Falcon Heavy took off with a roar and a huge sonic boom, moving at more than 3,000 miles an hour.

“There was also this crackling, which nobody could explain,” Lambert said.

Two minutes later, the Falcon Heavy’s two side boosters descended to earth, firing their rockets to land safely within a second of each other.

“It was like watching synchronized swimming,” Lambert said. “Nobody could believe it. The place went beyond crazy.”

Back in New Milford, the amateur astronomers at the McCarthy Observatory realized they had a chance to glimpse and photograph the Falcon Heavy’s payload — the Tesla roadster — attached to the rocket’s second stage.

The car, Starman and Bowie are heading into their own 18.8-month orbit around the sun. Unless some space rock knocks them off course, they’ll be out there for many millennia hence.

On a crystal-clear night on Feb. 13, the observatory’s director, Monty Robson arrived around midnight while three others — Lambert, Bill Cloutier and Mark Polansky — filtered in through the wee small hours of the morning.

They got the Tesla’s coordinates in space from the Minor Planets Center at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory at Harvard University. The center keeps track of what it calls Distant Artificial Satellites.

“They used to call it space junk,” Robson said.

The four quickly located the Tesla — a tiny speck in the night sky, even through the observatory’s telescope. With a series of long-exposure photographs, they were able to get a picture of it.

“It’s the same way we nurse out asteroids,” Robson said.

The observatory was lucky the weather cooperated. Another day or two and the Tesla would have sped beyond the observatory’s powers to see it.

“It was getting pretty close to the edge of our visibility,” Cloutier said.

The Falcon Heavy launch won’t change space exploration into a gold rush, space historian Launius said. There are still many government controls in play.

“It’s still going to be enormously regulated,” Launius said. “I can’t stress that enough.”

But Launius acknowledged that Musk — while prone to overpromising — has persevered.

“Eventually, he’s successful,” he said.

“They take risks,” Cloutier said. “Risks are what we need.”

Contact Robert Miller at earthmattersrgm@gmail.com

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