SpaceX will arrive on the Moon in just over a month, much earlier than expected.
But everything is accidental and it will cause a bit of a mess.
SpaceX, the rocket company launched by Elon Musk, has been selected by NASA to provide the spacecraft that will bring its astronauts back to the surface of the moon. It’s still years away.
Instead, it’s the four-tonne upper stage of a SpaceX rocket launched seven years ago that is set to crash into the Moon on March 4, based on recent observations and calculations from amateur astronomers.
Impact is scheduled for 7:25 a.m. Eastern Time, and while there is still some uncertainty as to the exact time and location, the rocket will not miss the moon, Bill Gray said. , developer of Project Pluto, a suite of astronomical software. used to calculate the orbits of asteroids and comets.
“It’s quite certain it’s going to hit, and it’s going to hit within minutes of the prediction and probably within a few miles,” Mr Gray said.
Since the start of the space age, various man-made artifacts have made their way to the solar system, not necessarily expecting to be seen again. This includes Mr. Musk’s Tesla Roadster, which was sent on the first launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket in 2018 into orbit through Mars. But sometimes they come back, like in 2020 when a mysterious newly discovered object turned out to be part of a rocket launched in 1966 during NASA’s Surveyor missions to the Moon.
Mr Gray has for years tracked this particular piece of trash from SpaceX, which helped launch the Deep Space Climate Observatory for the National Oceanic and the Atmospheric Administration on February 11, 2015.
This observatory, also known as DSCOVR for short, was heading to a location about a million miles from Earth where it can provide an early warning of potentially destructive bursts of energetic particles from the sun.
DSCOVR was originally called Triana, an Earth observation mission championed by Al Gore when he was vice president. The spacecraft, derisively called GoreSat, sat in storage for years until it was adapted for use as a solar storm warning system. Today, it routinely captures images of the entire planet Earth from space, Triana’s original purpose, including instances where the moon passes in front of the planet.
Most of the time, the upper stage of a Falcon 9 rocket is pushed back into Earth’s atmosphere after delivering its payload to orbit, a neat way to avoid cluttering space.
But that upper stage needed all of its propellant to send DSCOVR on its way to its faraway destination, and it ended up in a very high, elongated orbit around Earth, passing the moon’s orbit.
This opened up the possibility of a collision one day. The movement of the Falcon 9 stage, dead and uncontrolled, is determined primarily by the gravitational pull of the Earth, moon and sun and a pressure surge of sunlight.
Debris in low Earth orbit is watched closely because of the danger to satellites and the International Space Station, but more distant objects like the DSCOVR rocket are mostly forgotten.
“As far as I know, I’m the only person following these things,” Mr. Gray said.
While many spacecraft sent to the Moon have crashed there, this appears to be the first time that something from Earth not headed for the Moon will end up there.
On January 5, the rocket stage passed within 6,000 miles of the moon. The moon’s gravity tipped it into a trajectory that later appeared to intersect the moon.
Mr Gray asked amateur astronomers to take a look when the object flew past Earth last week.
One of the people who answered the call was Peter Birtwhistle, a retired IT professional who lives about 80km west of London. On Thursday last week, the domed 16-inch telescope in his backyard, awe-inspiringly named the Grand Shefford Observatory, pointed to the part of the sky where the rocket stage passed in minutes.
“This thing moves pretty fast,” Mr. Birtwhistle said.
The observations have sufficiently identified the trajectory to predict an impact. Astronomers will have a chance to get one more look next month before the rocket stage swings past the moon one last time. It should then enter to strike the far side of the moon, out of sight of anyone on Earth.
NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will not be able to see the impact live. But it will later pass over the predicted impact site and take pictures of the freshly dug crater.
Mark Robinson, a professor of Earth and space exploration at Arizona State University who is the principal camera finder of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, said he expected four tons of metal , striking at a speed of about 5,700 miles per hour, carves out a divot 10 to 20 yards wide, or up to 65 feet in diameter.
This will give scientists a glimpse of what lies beneath the surface and, unlike meteor impacts, they will know the exact size and time of impact.
India’s Chandrayaan-2 spacecraft, also orbiting the moon, may also be able to photograph the impact site.
Other spacecraft heading for the moon this year could have a chance of spotting the impact site – if they don’t also end up creating unintended craters.