A piece of space junk on a collision course with the moon initially thought to be a SpaceX Falcon rocket is now believed to be a booster tied to China’s lunar exploration program.
The object was first made public by Bill Gray, an independent researcher specializing in orbital dynamics and development of astronomical software. Gray identified the rogue piece in 2015 as the second stage of a SpaceX Falcon rocket, used that same year to launch the U.S. Deep Space Climate Observatory, or DSCOVR.
Although his findings were confirmed by several prominent astronomers, after receiving information from a NASA engineer, Gray said the data prompted him to reevaluate his initial conclusion that the piece belonged to SpaceX.
“I cannot blame SpaceX or China for doing what everyone else has done for decades in simply ignoring the problem,” he said. “I would also say to them that if they would care to let me know where their stuff is going in the first place, we can avoid this sort of mix-up.”
Gray also added that the object, initially called WE0913A by asteroid spotters, had gone past the moon two days after DSCOVR’s launch.
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“I and others came to accept the identification with the second stage as correct. The object had about the brightness we would expect, and had shown up at the expected time and was moving in a reasonable orbit,” Gray in a blog post.
Rocket expected to hit the moon on March 4
After analyzing the object’s orbits between 2016 and 2017, NASA determined that the rocket part probably launched into space seven years ago, according to a statement released by the agency on Feb. 15.
The rocket stage is expected to crash into the moon at 7:26 a.m. ET on March 4 according to several calculations. However, the impact will be on the far side of the moon and not visible from Earth. The rocket will also likely disintegrate on impact and create a crater about 10 to 20 meters across the surface.
“Analysis led by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies indicates the object expected to impact the far side of the Moon March 4 is likely the Chinese Chang’e 5-T1 booster launched in 2014,” a spokesperson said in the statement. “It is not a SpaceX Falcon 9 second stage from a mission in 2015 as previously reported.”
Neither officials with SpaceX nor the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program immediately returned requests for comment.
Better monitoring needed for space junk
The booster’s expected collision with the moon has raised concerns over space junk floating in deep space. It has also raised questions surrounding who tracks these rogue pieces and what more can be done so that agencies know what exactly is floating near Earth’s orbit.
Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told The Washington Post that “we need to have more attention paid to the junk that we’re leaving out there.”
He explained, “It’s especially hard for these things in chaotic deep space orbits where you pick something up several years after it was last seen and try and backtrack it to match it with a known mission.”
McDowell also said the confusion over the identity of this rocket stage highlighted the need for NASA and other space agencies to pay closer attention in “monitoring deep space junk, rather than simply relying on the limited resources of private individuals and academics.”
According to NASA, there are about 30 to 50 lost deep-space objects that have been missing for years, however no space agencies have systematically kept track of space debris.
“It’s not like LEO (low Earth orbit) stuff where the traffic is high so junk is a danger to other spacecraft. But you’d think it would be a good idea to know where we have dumped things,” McDowell added.