According to experts, a piece of a SpaceX rocket that launched seven years ago and was abandoned in space after completing its mission will crash into the Moon in March.
The rocket was deployed in 2015 to launch a NASA satellite called the Deep Space Climate Observatory into orbit (DSCOVR).
Since then, the rocket’s second stage, or booster, has been floating in what mathematicians call a chaotic orbit, astronomer Bill Gray told AFP on Wednesday.
Gray calculated the new collision course of the space junk with the Moon.
According to Gray, the booster passed quite close to the Moon in January during a rendezvous that altered its orbit.
He is the creator of Project Pluto, software that calculates the trajectory of asteroids and other space objects and is used in NASA-funded space observation programs.
Gray observed the rocket stage again a week after it whizzed close to the Moon and concluded it would crash into the Moon’s far side on March 4 at more than 5,500 miles per hour (9,000 kilometers per hour).
Gray enlisted the help of the amateur astronomer community to observe the booster, and his conclusion was confirmed.
The exact time and spot of impact may change slightly from his forecast but there is widespread agreement that there will be a collision on the Moon that day.
“I’ve been tracking junk of this sort for about 15 years. And this is the first unintentional lunar impact that we’ve had,” Gray told AFP.
‘Time to start regulating’
Astronomer Jonathan McDowell told AFP it’s possible similar impacts have taken place unnoticed.
“There’re at least 50 objects that were left in deep Earth orbit in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s that were just abandoned there. We didn’t track them,” he said.
“Now we’re picking up a couple of them… but a lot of them we’re not finding and so they’re not there anymore,” he added. “Probably at least a few of them hit the Moon accidentally and we just didn’t notice.”
The impact of a four-ton SpaceX rocket chunk on the Moon will not be visible in real time from Earth.
However, it will leave a crater that scientists will be able to observe with spacecraft and satellites such as NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter or India’s Chandrayaan-2, allowing them to learn more about the Moon’s geology.
Previously, spacecraft were deliberately crashed into the Moon for scientific purposes, such as during the Apollo missions to test seismometers.
NASA launched a rocket stage into the Moon near its south pole in 2009 to search for water.
However, most rockets do not travel that far from Earth. SpaceX returns its rocket boosters to Earth’s atmosphere, where they disintegrate over the ocean. The first stage is reused and recovered.
Gray says that as the US and Chinese space programs leave more debris in orbit, there may be more unintentional Moon crashes in the future.
McDowell noted these events “start to be problematic when there’s a lot more traffic”.
“It’s actually no one’s job to keep track of the junk that we leave out in deep earth orbit,” he added. “I think now’s the time to start regulating it.”
SpaceX did not immediately respond to request for comment from AFP.
Elon Musk‘s company is currently developing a lunar lander that should allow NASA to send astronauts back to the Moon by 2025 at the earliest.
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