The piece of space debris expected to hit the moon on March 4 is not part of a SpaceX rocket, as originally thought, but a booster rocket from a Chinese spacecraft sent to the moon in 2014.
The object now floating near the moon was first identified as part of a SpaceX rocket by Bill Gray, developer of the Project Pluto astronomy software.
He thought it was a booster launched in February 2015 that put into orbit a weather and Earth observation satellite called DSCOVR for the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
But on Saturday, Gray received an email from John Georgini of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory explaining that the trajectory of that rocket did not go “particularly close to the Moon” as Gray wrote on his blog, prompting him to look again and land on the Moon. another explanation.
The news that a SpaceX booster could crash into the moon made headlines, given that the reusable booster is a big selling point for SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s Falcon 9 rockets.
The piece of space debris expected to hit the Moon on March 4 is not a SpaceX booster, as first thought, but a Chinese experimental 2014 mission booster.
The booster helped launch the Chang’e 5-T1 spacecraft, a precursor to the Chang’e 5 mission, which collected samples of the moon and brought them back to China.
The official lunar probe Chang’e-5 (above) launched in November 2020 from Wenchang, Hainan Province, China. The booster that will hit the moon was part of an experimental mission launched in 2014.
The news of the rocket hitting the Moon was first reported by Ars Technica.
Mark Robinson, professor of earth and space science at Arizona State University, told the New York Times last month that the object is believed to weigh about four tons and travel at 5,700 miles per hour.
A crater about 65 feet in diameter is expected to appear on the surface of the Moon.
A piece of space junk does not belong to SpaceX, but to China.
Chang’e 5-T1 was an experimental spacecraft launched in October 2014 in preparation for the official Chang’e 5 mission, which launched in 2020 and made China the third country to return samples from the Moon after the US and the Soviet Union. .
The mission is part of China’s lunar exploration program.
Gray wrote that the mission’s booster was first seen in space in March 2015 by the Catalina Sky Survey.
Because the booster passed the moon two days after SpaceX’s DSCOVR launch, he said he and other astronomers “concluded that the identification with the second stage was correct.”
Bill Gray originally thought the booster belonged to a SpaceX launch in 2014, but was warned that the explanation didn’t fit the mission’s trajectory. The booster is expected to hit the moon at 5,700 miles per hour and create a crater 65 feet in diameter.
The Chang’e-5 lunar mission in 2020 made China the third country to return samples from the moon, after the United States and the Soviet Union.
“The object was about as bright as we expected, appeared at the expected time and was in a reasonable orbit,” Gray wrote.
He noted that space debris sometimes remains unidentified, and that naming objects floating in space often requires serious “detective work”.
NASA’s Georgini emailed Gray on Saturday that an explanation was unlikely due to DSCOVR’s trajectory, prompting Gray to “look for earlier space missions that might explain the object’s appearance.”
He looked at the “previous launch candidate,” which was China’s Chang’e 5-T1 experimental mission.
“It is not clear when the Chang’e 5-T1 launch vehicle will go to the moon, but four days after launch is a reasonable ballpark estimate. After orbiting WE0913A even further back, I did a flyby of the moon on October 28, 2014… it’s a pretty close flyby of the moon at about the right time,” he explained.
At first, the booster on an accelerated course with the Moon was thought to be from a SpaceX launch in 2014, when a NOAA Earth observation satellite was sent to Earth. Above: A Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Kennedy Space Center on Feb. 3.
Gray added that in hindsight, he should have noticed that SpaceX’s explanation was wrong.
“If not for the maneuvers, it would have been in a somewhat strange orbit around the Earth before flying around the Moon,” he said of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle.
“At its highest point it will be near the orbit of the Moon; at the very bottom (perigee), about a third of that distance. I expected perigee to be near the surface of the earth. Perigee seemed pretty high.
Perigee is the point of least distance from the Earth.
The initial erroneous news that the booster belonged to SpaceX caused a stir, with some taking issue with the environmental impact of space debris in general.
Space.com notes that it’s more “environmentally safe” for a dead rocket to end up on the Moon than through Earth’s atmosphere, where it turns into metal oxide particles on re-entry.
“The Moon also lacks an atmosphere to protect it from space debris, so natural impact craters are constantly accumulating on it,” the website says.
In March 2013, a half-meter-ton asteroid rock, moving about 10 times faster than the current booster about to collide with the moon, crashed into the surface and created a 19-meter crater.
Over the past decade, NASA’s lunar collision monitoring project has detected hundreds of other smaller impacts, including those caused by rocks as small as half a kilo, according to Space.com.
Two of the roughly 40 SpaceX Starlink satellites that were disabled by a geomagnetic storm a week ago can be seen in stunning new footage disintegrating over Puerto Rico.
Destroyed satellites are visible as glittering white streams in the night sky.
The footage was captured by a camera in Añasco, Puerto Rico, owned by the non-profit astronomy organization Sociedad de Astronomia del Caribe (SAC).
Artist’s rendering of a Starlink satellite above the Earth. Starlink is a constellation of satellites designed to bring Internet access to much of the Earth, especially in underserved rural areas.
Marco Langbroek, a satellite expert at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, is confident that these objects are Starlink satellites because the direction of movement of the objects coincides with the orbital plane of the Starlink launch.
As of February, more than 2,000 Starlink satellites have been launched as part of a constellation that provides satellite Internet access to remote parts of the Earth.
But earlier this week, SpaceX announced that up to 40 of its latest batch of 49 launched Feb. 3 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida “will re-enter or have already entered Earth’s atmosphere” and will therefore be destroyed.
Starlink satellites are not very large – they are about 10.5 feet by 5.25 feet and weigh 573 pounds – so there is very little chance of any of the objects remaining after re-entry, meaning they won’t hit people. on the ground.
About a minute apart, the new frames show two objects re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere and fragmenting.
According to Marco Langbroek, a satellite expert at Leiden University in the Netherlands, the second object is “particularly impressive.”
“The two objects could belong to the same object that had decayed earlier; or be two separate objects close together in the same orbital plane,” he said in a blog post.
Langbroek is confident that these objects are Starlink satellites because the direction of movement of the objects coincides with the orbital plane of the Starlink launch.