A University of Hawaii telescope on Mauna Loa recently spotted an unusual object hurtling through space: Elon Musk’s midnight-cherry Tesla Roadster.
The ATLAS (Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System) telescope is an asteroid impact early warning system being developed by the UH Institute for Astronomy (IfA) and funded by NASA. It consists of two telescopes, 100 miles apart, which automatically scan the whole sky several times every night looking for moving objects.
Officials say ATLAS was not actively looking for the Roadster. It was found on Feb. 8 during routine observations and automatically identified as a near-Earth object.
The Roadster was measured to be about 0.005 astronomical units (about 500,000 miles) from Earth, and speeding away at about 3.6 km/sec (8,000 mph).
“We were lucky to catch the Roadster before sunrise during our regular observing. This really demonstrates the power of our system to find small objects that could hit Earth, and accurately measure their orbits to see if they’re dangerous,” said Larry Denneau, IfA’s principal investigator for the ATLAS project.
Musk founded SpaceX in 2002 to design, manufacture, and launch advanced rockets and spacecraft with the ultimate goal of enabling humans to live on other planets. Its latest rocket, Falcon Heavy, lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Feb. 6 with the Roadster as its payload.
The company says demonstration missions typically carry steel or concrete blocks as mass simulators, but Musk decided it would be more worthwhile to launch something fun and without irreplaceable sentimental value: a red Roadster for the red planet with a fake astronaut in the driver’s seat.
“As a fan of what SpaceX is doing, it is fun to be a part of advances in science,” Denneau said.