The Moon is on the verge of collapsing with three tons of space junk, a punch that would cut a hole large enough to fit several tractor semi-trailers.
The remaining rocket will smash into the far side of the moon on Friday while traveling at 5,800 miles per hour. The effect will occur far from prying eyes in telescopes, and may take weeks – even months – to confirm with satellite images.
Experts say the rocket has been tumbling randomly through space since China launched it nearly a decade ago. But Chinese officials doubt it’s theirs.
Regardless of who it is, scientists expect the object will drill a hole between 33 feet and 66 feet wide and send moon dust flying hundreds of miles across the arid, blister-ridden surface.
low orbit space junk It is relatively easy to keep track of. Objects blasting deep into space are unlikely to collide with anything and these distant pieces are usually forgotten, except for a few observers who enjoy playing the celestial detective on the side.
SpaceX originally took a rap for the upcoming lunar litter after asteroid tracker Bill Gray set its collision course in January. He corrected himself a month later, saying that the “mysterious” object was not a SpaceX Falcon rocket of the upper stage LAUNCH 2015 NASA’s Deep Space Climate.
Gray said it was likely the third stage of a Chinese rocket that sent a test sample capsule to the moon and back in 2014. But Chinese ministry officials said the upper stage reentered Earth’s atmosphere and burned up.
But there have been two Chinese missions with similar names – the test flight and the 2020 return to the moon mission – and US observers believe the two are getting mixed up.
The US Space Command, which tracks low space junk, confirmed Tuesday that China’s upper stage of the 2014 lunar mission never de-orbited, as previously shown in its database. But she couldn’t confirm the country of origin of the thing about to hit the moon.
“We are focusing on things closest to Earth,” a company spokesperson said in a statement.
Gray, the mathematician and physicist, said he was now confident it was China’s missile.
“I’ve become a little more careful with such matters,” he said. “But I really don’t see any way anything else could be.”
Jonathan McDowell From the Harvard and Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics supports Gray’s revised assessment, but notes: “The effect will be the same. You’ll leave another small crater on the moon.”
The moon already holds countless craters, up to 1,600 miles across. With little or no real atmosphere, the Moon is defenseless against a constant barrage of meteors, asteroids, and the occasional incoming spacecraft, including a few Deliberately crashed for the sake of science. With no weather, there is no wear and so impact pits last forever.
China has Lunar probe on the far side of the moon, but would be too far from detecting the impact on Friday north of the equator. NASA agency lunar reconnaissance vehicle It will also be out of range. India is unlikely to orbit the moon Chandrayaan-2 It will then pass, either.
“I was hoping for something [significant] To hit the moon for a long time. Ideally, it would have hit the near side of the moon at some point where we can actually see it,” Gray said.
Pinning the next hit on Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Gray took another look after an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory questioned his claim. Now, it is “fully convinced” that it is part of a Chinese rocket, based not only on orbital tracking for its 2014 launch, but also data received from the short-lived ham radio experiment.
Jet Propulsion Laboratory Center for Near-Earth Object Studies Supports re-evaluation of Gray. A team from the University of Arizona recently identified a segment of a Chinese Long March rocket from light reflected off its coating, during telescope observations of the deflecting cylinder.
They are about 40 feet long and 10 feet in diameter, and do somersaults every two to three minutes.
Gray said SpaceX never contacted him to challenge his original claim. Nor are the Chinese.
“It’s not a SpaceX problem, nor is it a China problem. Nobody particularly cares what they do with junk in this kind of orbit,” Gray said.
According to McDowell, tracking the remnants of a deep space mission like this is tricky. The moon’s gravity can change the trajectory of an object during flight, creating uncertainty. McDowell noted that there is no readily available database, except for those “bundled together” by himself, Gray and a couple others.
“We are now in an era where many states and private companies are putting things into deep space, so it is time to start tracking them,” McDowell said. “At the moment there is no one, only a few fans in their spare time.”
Associated Press video producer Olivia Zhang and Beijing-based video journalist Sam McNeill contributed to this report.
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