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Tracking the billion year road trip

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, Fla. -- Last picture of Starman in roadster enroute to Mars orbit and then the Asteroid Belt. Starman and the roadster could be viewed live as they began their journey. (Courtesy photo by Elon Musk/SPACEX)

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, Fla. -- Two boosters from SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket approach Landing Zones 1 and 2, located at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. on Feb. 6, 2018. The rocket, which lifted off from the historic launchpad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, is now the most powerful launch vehicle in operation anywhere in the world. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Zoe Thacker)

WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE, N.M. – The Milk Way Galaxy is on full display as it passes by a ground-based electro-optical deep-space surveillance telescope located on White Sands Missile Range--the location of Detachment 1, 20th Operations Group and their space surveillance mission, March 29, 2017 in New Mexico. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. David Salanitri)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. --

Cruising with the windows down, music up and the Sun shining on your face.  Going on a road trip is an adventure that some people love or aspire to do. For one individual, their road trip could last a billion years, and the 18th Space Control Squadron is tracking it.

His name is Starman, and he’s currently cruising through our solar system in a bright red car. He’s got one hand on the steering wheel and the other resting on the door while David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” blasts from his radio. The Sun is a constant light shining on him during his journey, and the first stop on his adventure is a fly-by of Mars, then a visit to the beginning of the asteroid belt before returning to Mars in an elliptical orbit. A sign on his dashboard reads, “Don’t panic!”

Starman is not really a man, however, but rather a dummy in one of SpaceX’s new space suits.

SpaceX launched their Falcon Heavy rocket on Feb. 6, 2018, which is now the most powerful launch vehicle in operation in the world. SpaceX owner and CEO, Elon Musk, said in an interview with a national news network, “Test vehicles usually carry concrete or steel blocks, but that would be extremely boring. We decided to send something unusual, something that made us feel.”

That choice was Musk’s own personal car, with Starman onboard.

Enter the mission of the 18th SPCS located at Vandenberg Air Force base, California, a geographically separated unit of the 21st Operations Group, 21st Space Wing, Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado. Their mission is to maintain the satellite catalog by processing observations of objects launched into space, currently on orbit, or re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere, including more than 1,400 active objects and 22,000 pieces of debris.

As objects in space orbit the Earth, like a bright red car, three Ground-based Electro-Optical Deep-Space Surveillance Sites, or GEODSS, collect positional and photometric data said Maj. Erin Salinas, Detachment 1 commander, 20th Space Control Squadron.

“We have to know where things are in space in order to know what is going on around us,” Salinas said. “Our data helps maintain the advantages space is providing us, in not just our everyday life as civilians, but with our military capabilities as well.”

As Falcon Heavy left Earth’s atmosphere and delivered its payload into orbit, the GEODSS track its position. The car’s positional data is then relayed to the 18th SPCS and they assign it a catalog number. Diana McKissock, 18th Space Control Squadron Spaceflight Safety and SSA Sharing Flight Lead, says you can see this information on Space-Track.org.

“The car’s number is 43205, named ‘TESLA ROADSTER/FALCON 9H’ in the satellite catalog,” said McKissock.

Far above the world, floating in a peculiar way, Starman sits in a tin can. There’s nothing he can do with Earth looking blue in his rear-view mirror, but the men and women of the 21st Space Wing are tracking his journey. A testament to the abilities of our space situational awareness mission and the Airmen that bring space superiority to the fight every day.