On March 4, 2022, the spent upper stage of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will crash into the moon. The debris has been in space since February of 2015, when it launched the Deep Space Climate Observatory into space. The Falcon 9 made a close flyby of the moon on January 5, 2022.
SpaceX will be getting to the moon a bit more than a month from now, far earlier than expected.
SpaceX, the rocket company started by Elon Musk, has been selected by NASA to provide the spaceship that will take its astronauts back to the surface of the moon. That is still years away.
Bill Gray was tracking a SpaceX rocket orbiting near the moon from his home in Maine when his computer software gave him a reading he didn’t expect. Gray said he had kept track of the “chaotic orbit” of the Falcon 9 booster, which launched in 2015 as part of a mission to send a space weather satellite on a million-mile journey.
Instead, it is the four-ton upper stage of a SpaceX rocket launched seven years ago that is to crash into the moon on March 4, based on recent observations and calculations by amateur astronomers.
The debris will hit at a speed of 1.6 miles an hour (2.58 km/sec). The effects of the impact will be minimal, aside from a new, albeit small, crater on the moon.
On Jan. 5, the rocket stage passed less than 6,000 miles from the moon. The moon’s gravity swung it on a course that looked like it might later cross paths with the moon.
“I realized that my software complained because it couldn’t project the orbit past March 4,” Gray, who has tracked space junk, asteroids and objects near Earth for about 25 years, told The Washington Post.
This is the first-known unintentional impact of space junk with the moon. However, the moon has endured a great many intentional impacts of rockets and other spacecraft.
On March 4, the moon will be in a waxing crescent phase. While you are welcome to gaze at the moon, you won’t see any of the action as the Falcon 9 comes crashing down. The rocket booster is very small. But, most importantly, the impact site is on the far side of the moon, the side we don’t see from Earth.
Other space observers have confirmed the data and agreed that the rocket, which weighs about 4 metric tons, is set to crash into the far side of the moon in March, in what Gray believes might be “the first unintentional case” of space junk hitting the moon. The expected crash will create a new crater, but it will not significantly damage the moon, Gray said, noting that it’s “built to take this sort of abuse.”
Debris has been crashing into our moon since the moon and restof the solar system formed, billions of years ago. And we humans have intentionally crashed some of our spacecraft into the moon. During many of the Apollo missions, for example, NASA crashed the rocket booster stages (the S-IVBs) into the moon for scientific reasons. It allowed them to take seismic measurements to help them characterize the lunar interior.
This isn’t the first time that a rocket’s upper stage hits the moon. The upper stages of NASA’s Saturn V rockets have also crashed into the moon during the Apollo programme as well as the Atlas V rocket back in 2009. This would however be the first time a SpaceX rocket’s upper stage is doing a lunar crash.
The expert, whose Project Pluto astronomical software provides commercial and freeware data research to amateur and professional astronomers, knew there were three possibilities for an object traveling in such a chaotic orbit: The rocket could hit the moon, hit Earth or pick up enough energy so that it goes past the moon and is thrown around the sun.
Once he saw Jan. 14 that the rocket was expected to crash into the moon, Gray reached out to a group of astronomers to confirm that the data was correct.
“I’ve always been hopeful for one to hit the moon because we really don’t learn anything from the other cases,” he said.