NASA Says Space Junk is on a Collision Course with the Moon

The moon is going to be slammed by 3 tons of space trash, a punch that would carve out a crater large enough to accommodate multiple semitrailers.

On Friday, the remaining rocket will slam into the far side of the moon at 5,800 mph (9,300 kph), far from the prying eyes of observatories. It might take weeks, if not months, for satellite photographs to establish the impact.

Experts believe it has been drifting aimlessly through space since China launched it over a decade ago. Officials in China, though, remain skeptical that it is theirs.

Whatever it is, experts predict it will rip a crater 33 feet to 66 feet (10 to 20 meters) through the barren, pockmarked surface and send lunar dust flying hundreds of miles (kilometers).

Tracking low-orbiting space debris is quite simple. Objects that shoot further into space are unlikely to collide with anything, and these far-flung bits are quickly forgotten, save for a few spectators who love playing celestial detective on the side.

After asteroid tracker Bill Gray spotted the crash trajectory in January, SpaceX was first blamed for the forthcoming lunar litter. A month later, he clarified that the “mystery” item was not a SpaceX Falcon rocket upper stage from NASA’s deep space climate observatory launch in 2015.

Gray believes it was the third stage of a Chinese rocket that orbited the moon in 2014 and returned with a test sample capsule. The top stage, however, had reentered Earth’s atmosphere and burnt up, according to Chinese ministry officials.

However, there were two Chinese missions with identical names — the test flight and the lunar sample return mission in 2020 — and analysts in the United States believe the two are being confused.

The United States Space Command, which monitors lower-level space debris, verified Tuesday that the Chinese top stage from the 2014 lunar mission never deorbited, contrary to what its database previously suggested. However, it was unable to determine the nation of origin of the object that was due to collide with the moon.

In a statement, a spokeswoman stated, “We focus on things closer to the Earth.”

Gray, a physicist and mathematician, said he’s now certain it’s China’s rocket.

“I’ve gotten a little more wary of such things,” he explained. “But there’s no way it could be anything else,” she says.

“The effect will be the same,” says Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard and Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, who endorses Gray’s updated estimate. On the moon, it’ll create yet another little crater.”

The moon already has a plethora of craters, some measuring up to 1,600 miles in diameter (2,500 kilometers). The moon is helpless against the regular assault of meteors and asteroids, as well as the rare approaching spacecraft, including a couple that are purposefully wrecked for science’s benefit. Because there is no erosion when there is no weather, impact craters stay indefinitely.

China has a lunar lander on the far side of the moon, but it will be too far away to detect the impact just north of the equator on Friday. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, operated by NASA, will likewise be out of range. India’s moon-orbiting Chandrayaan-2 is also unlikely to fly by at that time.

“For a long time, I had hoped that something (important) would strike the moon. “Ideally, it would have struck on the moon’s near side at a place where we could see it,” Gray said.

After an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory questioned Gray’s allegation that the imminent hit will be blamed on Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Gray took another look. He’s now “quite completely convinced” it’s a Chinese rocket component, based on orbital tracking dating back to the launch in 2014, as well as data from the rocket’s short-lived ham radio experiment.

Gray’s reconsideration is supported by JPL’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies. During telescopic views of the careening cylinder, a University of Arizona team reportedly identified the Chinese Long March rocket section by light reflected off its paint.

It’s around 40 feet (12 meters) long and 10 feet (3 meters) wide, and it rotates every two to three minutes.

SpaceX, according to Gray, never contacted him to refute his initial assertion. The Chinese haven’t either.

“It’s not a SpaceX issue, and it’s not a China issue.” “At this kind of orbit, nobody is especially concerned about what they do with debris,” Gray added.

According to McDowell, tracking deep space mission leftovers is difficult. During flybys, the moon’s gravity might modify an object’s course, causing ambiguity. And, other from the databases “cobbled together” by McDowell, Gray, and a few others, there is none widely available.

“Now that numerous nations and private firms are placing things in deep space, it’s time to start keeping track of everything,” McDowell said. “Right now, there’s no one, just a couple of casual admirers.”

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