Monday, September 25

A piece of a SpaceX rocket is on its way to collide with the far side of the moon

SpaceX is about to make a permanent mark on space. Astronomers said this week that a piece of a Falcon 9 rocket that launched in February 2015 is currently on a trajectory to collide with the moon in just a few weeks.

The rocket took off from Florida’s Cape Canaveral and launched NOAA’s Deep Space Climate Observatory, a project that allows researchers to maintain real-time data for more accurate space weather alerts and forecasts. According to NOAA, having that data is “critical,” since space weather events “have the potential to disrupt nearly every major public infrastructure system on Earth.”

During that deployment, Falcon 9’s second stage, which provides it with a second boost to reach the desired orbit, ran out of fuel to return to Earth, according to Ars Technica meteorologist and space editor Eric Berger. The second stage has been orbiting the Earth ever since and now, according to data collected by astronomers, it is on track to hit the Moon.

Bill Gray, who writes the Pluto Project software used by amateur and professional astronomers, has collected data from those space observers over the past few weeks to predict when the impact will occur. Based on the information he collected, there will be “some impact” with the far side of the moon on March 4, he said.

Astronomer jonathan mcdowell He also confirmed the date of the collision, tweeting on Tuesday: “For those asking: yes, an old Falcon 9 second stage left in high orbit in 2015 will reach the moon on March 4.”

This shows the object’s trajectory between January 1 and the March 4 impact. The green circle shows the orbit of the moon; earth is the red circle in the center.

Bill Gray/Project Pluto

The rocket stage is currently floating away from Earth and outside the moon’s orbit in a “chaotic” orbit, Gray said, but in the next few days, it is expected to turn around and return to Earth. It did a “close lunar flyby” on January 5, but March 4 is when its path and that of the moon will cross.

“If this were a rock, it would be 100%,” Gray wrote on Project Pluto about his certainty that the second stage will reach the moon. “But space debris can be a bit misleading… I’m guessing the above prediction may be off by a few kilometers and seconds from the predicted time. We’ll need (and hopefully get) more observations soon.” February to refine the forecast.

While the collision course is interesting, McDowell has said on Twitter that it’s “no big deal”.

“Things left in cislunar orbit are unstable,” he tweeted to a person who asked if the collision was deliberate. “[They] it will eventually hit the Moon or Earth or be perturbed into solar orbit.”

Gray agrees that there is no concern from a security standpoint. However, he said, this is the “first unintended case” of space debris hitting the moon that he is aware of. Other space missions have resulted in thrusters being deliberately aimed at the moon, he said.

It’s not clear whether ground-based astronomers will be able to observe the actual collision, Gray said.

“Most of the moon is in the way, and even if it was on the near side, the impact happens a couple of days after New Moon,” he said.

But it could provide more answers about the composition of Earth’s moon if lunar orbiters can observe the crash site.

“If we can tell the [lunar orbiter] people exactly where the crater is, eventually they’ll go over there and they’ll be able to see a very young impact crater and probably learn something about the geology (well, selenology) of that part of the moon,” Gray said.

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