month On the verge of collapse with three tons of space junk, a punch that would slice a crater that could fit several semi-trailers.
The remaining rocket will hit the far side of the moon at a speed of 5,800 mph (9,300 kph) on Friday, beyond telescope surveillance. It can take weeks, even months, to confirm the effect with satellite imagery.
Experts believe it has been randomly scrolling through space ever since China He launched it almost a decade ago. But Chinese officials doubt this is theirs.
Regardless of who it is, scientists predict that the object will dig a hole 33 to 66 feet (10 to 20 meters) wide and send moon dust flying hundreds of miles (kilometers) across the barren, blistered surface.
It’s relatively easy to track low-orbit space junk. Objects that explode deep into space are unlikely to collide with anything, and these distant pieces are usually forgotten, save for a few observers who enjoy playing sky detective on the side.
SpaceX initially picked up the rap for the upcoming lunar litter after asteroid tracker Bill Gray set its collision course in January. He corrected himself a month later, saying the “mysterious” object was not the SpaceX Falcon rocket in the upper stages of NASA’s Space Climate Observatory launch in 2015.
Gray said it was probably 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 re-entered Earth’s atmosphere and caught fire.
But there are two Chinese missions with similar names – a test flight and a return to the moon 2020 mission – and US observers believe the two are mixed up.
The US Space Command, which tracks low-lying space junk, confirmed Tuesday that the upper stage of China’s 2014 lunar mission was never in orbit, as previously described in its database. But he could not confirm the country of origin of the object that would hit the moon.
“We focus on the things closest to Earth,” a company spokesperson said in a statement.
Gray, a mathematician and physicist, said he now believed it was a Chinese missile.
“I became a little more careful with things like that,” he said. “But I really don’t see anything else that could happen.”
Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard and Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics supports Gray’s revised assessment, but notes: “The effect will be the same. You will leave another small crater on the moon.”
The moon already has countless craters, reaching 1,600 miles (2,500 km). With little or no real atmosphere, the Moon is defenseless against a constant barrage of meteors and asteroids, and the occasional incoming spacecraft, including some deliberately crashing for the sake of science. No weather, no wear so impact holes last forever.
China has a lunar lander on the far side of the moon, but it will be too far away to detect Friday’s impact north of the equator. NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will also be out of range. India orbiting the moon Chandrayaan-2 is also unlikely to pass at that time.
“I was expecting something [significant] To hit the moon for a long time. Ideally, it would hit the near side of the moon at some point where we can actually see it,” Gray said.
Pinning his next hit on Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Gray took another look after an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory questioned his claims. Now, it is “completely certain” that it is a Chinese rocket piece, based not only on orbital tracking for the 2014 launch, but also data received from short-lived ham radio experiments.
JPL’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies supports Gray’s re-evaluation. A team from the University of Arizona recently identified segments of China’s Long March rocket from light reflected from its layers, during telescope observations of the deflecting cylinder.
They are about 40 feet (12 m) long and 10 feet (3 m) in diameter, and appear every two to three minutes.
Gray said SpaceX never contacted him to challenge his original claim. Neither do the Chinese.
“This is not a SpaceX problem, nor is it a China problem. Nobody really cares what they do with trash in this kind of orbit,” Gray said.
According to McDowell, tracking the remnants of a space mission like this is quite complicated. The moon’s gravity can change the trajectory of an object during flight, creating uncertainty. McDowell notes that no database is available, except for one “bundled together” by himself, Gray and a few others.
“We’re now in an era where a lot of states and private companies are putting a lot of stuff into space, so it’s time to start tracking it,” McDowell said. “At the moment there is no one, just a few fans in their free time.”