SpaceX will go to the moon in just over a month, much earlier than expected.
But this is all random and it will cause a bit of a mess.
SpaceX, the rocket company founded by Elon Musk, has been selected by NASA to supply the spacecraft that will take astronauts back to the surface of the moon. It’s still years.
Instead, the four-ton upper stage of a SpaceX rocket launched seven years ago should crash into the Moon on March 4, based on recent observations and calculations by amateur astronomers.
The impact is predicted for 7:25 a.m. ET, and while there is still some uncertainty about the exact time and location, the rocket part will not miss the moon, said Bill Gray, developer of Project Pluto, an astronomy software package. used to calculate the orbits of asteroids and comets.
“It is very clear that it will strike, and it will strike within minutes of being predicted and probably within a few kilometers,” Mr Gray said.
Since the beginning of the space age, various man-made artifacts have been sent to the solar system and were not always expected to be seen again. That includes Mr. Musk’s Tesla Roadster, which was sent on the first launch of a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket in 2018 into orbit that passes Mars. But sometimes they come back, like in 2020, when a newly discovered mysterious object turned out to be part of a rocket launched in 1966 during NASA’s Surveyor mission to the moon.
Mr. Gray has been following this particular piece of SpaceX debris for years, which helped launch the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Deep Space Climate Observatory on Feb. 11, 2015.
This observatory, also known by its short name DSCOVR, was heading to a location about a million miles from Earth where it could provide early warning of potentially damaging energy particle emissions from the Sun.
Originally called Triana, DSCOVR was an Earth observation mission championed by Al Gore when he was vice president. The spacecraft, derisively named GoreSat, was stored for many years before being adapted for use as a solar storm warning system. Today, he regularly takes pictures of the entire planet Earth from space, the original goal of Triana, including when the Moon crosses the planet.
Most of the time, the upper stage of a Falcon 9 rocket is pushed back into Earth’s atmosphere after it has delivered its payload into orbit, which is a neat way to avoid space clutter.
But that upper stage took all the fuel to send the DSCOVR to its distant destination, and ended up in a very high elongated orbit around the Earth, bypassing the orbit of the Moon.
This opened up the possibility of a collision someday. The movement of the Falcon 9 stage, dead and out of control, is determined mainly by the gravitational pull of the Earth, Moon and Sun, as well as the pressure of sunlight.
Debris in low Earth orbit is closely watched for danger to satellites and the International Space Station, but more distant objects like the DSCOVR rocket are largely forgotten.
“As far as I know, I’m the only one keeping track of these things,” said Mr Gray.
Although numerous spacecraft sent to the Moon have crashed there, this appears to be the first time that something from Earth that is not aimed at the Moon has ended up there.
On January 5, the rocket stage passed less than 6,000 miles from the moon. The moon’s gravity turned her on a course that looked like she would later cross paths with the moon.
Mr Gray asked amateur astronomers to take a look as the object streaked past Earth last week.
One of those who answered the call was Peter Berthwistle, a former information technology professional who lives about 50 miles west of London. On Thursday last week, the domed 16-inch telescope in his garden, majestically named the Great Shefford Observatory, pointed to the part of the sky where the rocket stage had passed in a few minutes.
“This thing moves pretty fast,” said Mr. Birtwhistle.
The observations determined the trajectory enough to predict the impact. Astronomers will have a chance to take another look next month before the rocket stage leaves the moon for the last time. It should then hit 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 collision live. But later he will pass over the expected impact site and take photographs of the freshly dug crater.
Mark Robinson, a professor of earth and space sciences at Arizona State University who is the principal investigator for the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter chamber, said he expected four tons of metal flying at about 5,700 miles per hour to carve a 10 to 20 inch wide branch. meters or up to 65 feet in diameter.
This will give scientists a glimpse of what lies below the surface, and unlike meteorite impacts, they will know exactly the size and timing of the fall.
The Indian spacecraft Chandrayaan 2, also in orbit around the moon, can also photograph the crash site.
Other spacecraft bound for the Moon this year may have a chance to find the crash site if they don’t leave unintended craters as well.