A SpaceX rocket is on a collision course with the Moon after spending nearly seven years traversing space, experts say.
The booster was originally launched from Florida in February 2015 as part of an interplanetary mission to send a space weather satellite on a journey of one million miles.
But after finishing a long burn of its engines and sending NOAA’s Deep Space Climate Observatory on its way to Lagrange’s point – a gravity-neutral position four times farther than the moon and in a direct line with the sun – the second stage of the rocket became abandoned. .
At this point, it was high enough that it didn’t have enough fuel to return to Earth’s atmosphere, but also “lack of energy to escape the gravity of the Earth-Moon system,” meteorologist Eric Berger explained in a recent article on Ars Technica.
“So it’s been in a somewhat chaotic orbit since February 2015,” Berger added.
Space observers believe the rocket – about four metric tons of “space junk” – is on course to cruise past the Moon at a speed of about 2.58 km/s within weeks.
Bill Gray, who writes software to track near-Earth objects, asteroids, minor planets and comets, said Falcon 9’s upper stage would most likely reach the far side of the Moon, near the equator, March 4.
The data analyst said in a recent blog post that the object “performed a close lunar flyby on January 5” but will have “some impact on March 4.”
“This is the first unintentional case [of space junk hitting the moon] which I am aware of,” Gray added.
Exactly where the rocket will hit remains uncertain due to the unpredictable effect of sunlight “pushing” on the rocket and the “ambiguity in measuring rotation periods” which can alter its orbit slightly.
“These unpredictable effects are very small. But they will accumulate by March 4,” Gray wrote, adding that further observations were needed to refine the precise time and location of the impact.
As to whether the collision could be seen from Earth, Gray says it will likely go unnoticed.
“Most of the moon is in the way, and even though it was close, the impact occurs a few days after the New Moon.”
Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at Harvard University, wrote that the impact was due March 4 but was “not a big deal”.
Still, space enthusiasts believe the impact could yield valuable data.
Berger thinks the event will see subterranean material ejected by the rocket strike, while Gray says he’s “looking for a lunar impact.”
“We already know what happens when trash hits the Earth; there is not much to learn from this,” he said.