Next March, the second stage of a Falcon 9 rocket will crash into the lunar surface. It had been abandoned in space since its launch seven years ago.
It wasn’t planned, but SpaceX will finally land on the Moon this year…although not in one piece. The second stage of a Falcon 9 rocket will land on the lunar surface in March, according to astronomers who have recalculated the trajectory of the machine, abandoned in space since its launch seven years ago. The rocket was used in 2015 to orbit a climate observation satellite on Earth, the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR). Since then, the spacecraft’s second stage has been floating through the cosmos in an orbit called “chaotic” by mathematicians because it’s hard to predict, astronomer Bill Gray, who was the first to notice the new trajectory, told AFP on Wednesday.
The object passed very close to the Moon in early January, which changed its orbit, detailed the creator of “Project Pluto”, a software for calculating the trajectories of asteroids and other objects, used by NASA-funded observation programs. A week later, the expert managed to observe the rocket piece again and realized that it was supposed to collide with the far side of the Moon on March 4.
After appealing to amateur astronomers to make additional observations, the data was confirmed. The spacecraft will hit the lunar surface at over 9,000 km/h. The precise time and location can still change by a few minutes and kilometers, due to the unpredicted effect on this hollow cylinder of sunlight, which noticeably pushes it along.
The rocket phase can be observed again in early February, and the estimate refined. But the collision is certain. “I’ve been tracking space junk like this for about 15 years, and this is the first unintentional lunar impact” detected, said Bill Gray.
Regulate wasted space
According to astronomer Jonathan McDowell, it is possible that similar impacts have occurred in the past, without our knowledge. “There are at least 50 objects left in deep space in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, just left there without tracking,” he told AFP. Today’s sightings haven’t found them all. “It’s likely that some hit the moon accidentally,” he said.
Next March, the explosion of this approximately four-ton object will not be visible from Earth when it occurs. But it should cause a crater that could be observed by scientists later, in particular by NASA’s LRO (Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter) or the Indian one, called Chandrayaan-2, and thus make it possible to learn more about lunar geology.
Ships have been intentionally launched to the Moon for scientific purposes in the past, such as during the Apollo missions to test seismographs. In 2009, NASA sent a second-stage rocket to crash into an area near the lunar south pole to study the presence of water. Many of SpaceX’s rockets are launched less far, which often allows the second stage to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere, where it disintegrates above the ocean. The first floor is recovered and reused. But these unplanned lunar impacts could multiply in the future, according to Bill Gray, in particular because of the objects that American or Chinese lunar programs will leave behind. The United States wants to build a station in orbit around the Moon. These events “will start to be problematic when there is more traffic,” Jonathan McDowell pointed out.
Today, “it is nobody’s job to follow the trajectory of the waste we leave in deep space”, recalled the expert. “It’s time to start regulating it.” When contacted, SpaceX did not respond to AFP. Elon Musk’s company is currently developing the lander that should allow NASA to return Americans to the Moon before 2025.