8th February, 2018
This morning at 6:09 AM local time from the South of Spain, Elecnor Deimos Space Surveillance & Tracking Centre captured a moving object at a distance of 520.000 km and at only 20 arcmin from the predicted position of the Starman-driven Tesla Roadster, which was launched towards Mars by SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy vehicle during a historic event on the 6th of February 2018. Whether the object observed is the Tesla vehicle itself or the upper stage of the launcher is yet to be confirmed.
In the hours previous to the observation, the astronomy software developer and founder of Project Pluto, Bill Gray, computed a preliminary orbit of great accuracy that was key to capture the object. He then forwarded this information to several observatories, but the low elevation over the horizon and its closeness to the Moon made the observations really challenging for most of them.
Deimos Sky Survey (DeSS) sent the measurements obtained from the observations at around 8 AM, Spanish local time. These, together with the ones provided by the SONEAR Observatory from Brazil at a distance slightly greater than that of the Moon (390.000 to 416.000km), have enabled the determination of an orbit that will ensure the tracking of the object for the following week, before it gets too faint. “With either of their data, we’d have gotten a decent orbit. With both, we’ve got one that will ensure it’ll be easy to keep track of [the object]” says Bill Gray.
The following animation shows the images taken by Deimos Sky Survey’s sensor Tracker2 as the object crossed the sky. The variation observed in the brightness of the object indicates a quick rotation spin.
To better understand the pointing process of DeSS Tracker2 sensor (in red) towards the predicted position of SpaceX’s Starman Tesla Roadster / Falcon Heavy Upper Stage, the following image taken from DeSS all-sky camera shows all the visible sky from the observatory at the time of the observation. It can be observed how the moonlight covers the South East. “Close to the morning twilight, and pointing close to the Moon, at a very low elevation over the horizon of about 20 degrees, the observation conditions were really challenging” affirms Jaime Nomen, director of Deimos Sky Survey.
Deimos Sky Survey is Elecnor Deimos’s Space Surveillance and Tracking Centre, located in the South of Spain. It provides services through European and national Space Surveillance and Tracking programmes (such as the Spanish Space Surveillance and Tracking programme, S3T, managed by the Spanish Centre for the Development of Industrial Technology), with the objective of protecting space assets from collisions with space debris, as well as to alert civil protection services in case of reentry.