When news broke that Tesla had launched a Roadster into space, along with a mannequin driver nicknamed “Starman,” most people’s reaction was something like: WTF? 

Are there even roads in space?? [Image Courtesy Mark Van Seeters @ https://www.flickr.com/photos/zanthraxnl/]

For one dedicated astrophotographer, however, the news led to an immediate obsession to answer the question: Can Starman be observed from Earth? 

That photographer was none other than Rogelio Bernal Andreo, operator of RBA Premium Astrophotography and winner of many awards. Here’s how he describes his motivations on his blog, deepskycolors [emphasis mine]:

Mr. Andreo [Image Courtesy Michael Stecker @ mstecker.com]

“once footage of the car and Starman started to arrive and people wondered if it could be observed from Earth, there was just one thing in my mind: to find the answer to that question and if yes, to try take a picture – better yet, a video – of it.”

 

And so began a 3-day adventure which would include lots of coordinates, little sleep, and a one tiny mistake.

Feb. 8

“I spent a big part of the day…”

Rogelio begins looking for the Roadster’s “ephemeris,” a fancy word for a list of coordinates describing its location over time; this takes “a big part” of the day. He discovers that NASA had just added the roadster, under the designation 2018-017A, to its list of documented ephemerides.

Feb. 9 

“It’s cold and I’m tired”

2:00 A.M.– With his findings in hand, Rogelio heads to Montebello Open Space Preserve, where he has a night permit (brownie points for staying legal).

While he doesn’t typically do astrophotography at this location—its proximity to San Fran gives it too much light pollution—he “was tired” and the “quick 40 minutes drive…sounded just about right.”

Still, he has a feeling he’ll be able to capture the Roadster and Starman given its reported brightness magnitude of 17.5.

4:00 A.M.- “It’s cold and I’m tired”

5:15 A.M.- Rogelio heads home, sleeps “a few” hours, and begins looking at what he captured. Unfortunately, he says, “no matter what I did, I could not find the Roadster”

Feb. 10

“….still puzzled about the whole thing.”

1:30 A.M.- Arrives at Montebello, begins to set up gear.

2:30 A.M.- Begins shooting.

3:00 A.M.- Clouds appear.

4:00 A.M.- Dejected, Rogelio heads home.

After a quick nap- Rogelio has still found nothing, is “puzzled about the whole thing.” THEN, it hits him:

 

“I did not enter my coordinates!!”

 

You see, Rogelio had been mapping the Roadster’s coordinates as they were in relation to NASA’s default location, not his own. In his rush to answer the question on every astrophotographer’s mind, he had forgotten this simple step. Accounting for the differences, he easily finds Starman “cruising through space” in his video.

The above video magnified and with helpful arrow:

As to the original question—Can Starman be observed from Earth? —the answer is, given you remember to account for your own coordinates, absolutely.

 

Images and Video Courtesy Rogelio Bernal Andreo