A SpaceX rocket is on a collision course with the moon after spending almost seven years hurtling through 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 1.6 million kilometers.
However, after completing a long burn of its engines and sending the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Deep Space Climate Observatory on its way to the so-called Lagrange point — a gravity-neutral position four times further than the moon and in direct line with the sun — the rocket’s second stage became derelict.
At this stage, it was high enough that it did not have enough fuel to return to Earth’s atmosphere, but also “lacked the energy to escape the gravity of the Earth-moon system,” meteorologist Eric Berger wrote in a post on Ars Technica.
“So it has been following a somewhat chaotic orbit since February 2015,” Berger added.
Space observers believe the rocket — about 4 tonnes of “space junk” — is on course to intersect with the moon at a velocity of about 2.58 kilometers per second in a matter of weeks.
Bill Gray — who writes software to track near-Earth objects, asteroids, minor planets and comets — has said that the Falcon 9’s upper stage is likely to hit the far side of the moon, near the equator, on March 4.
The data analyst said in a blog post that the object “made a close lunar flyby on Jan. 5,” but is to make “a certain impact at March 4.”
“This is the first unintentional case [of space junk hitting the moon] of which I am aware,” Gray added.
The exact spot the rocket is to hit remains unclear due to the unpredictable effect of sunlight “pushing” on the rocket and “ambiguity in measuring rotation periods,” which might slightly alter its orbit.
“These unpredictable effects are very small. But they will accumulate between now and March 4,” Gray wrote, adding that further observations were needed to refine the precise time and location of the impact.
As for whether the collision could be viewed from Earth, Gray said that it would probably go unobserved.
“The bulk of the moon is in the way, and even if it were on the near side, the impact occurs a couple of days after New Moon,” he wrote.
Harvard University astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell wrote that the impact is due on March 4, but is “not a big deal.”
Nevertheless, space enthusiasts believe the impact could provide valuable data.
Berger believes that the event would allow for observation of subsurface material ejected by the rocket’s strike, while Gray said that he is “rooting for a lunar impact.”
“We already know what happens when junk hits the Earth; there’s not much to learn from that,” he said.
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